County hopes for the best, prepares for the worst

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR Staff
khelms@starhq.com

   When President George W. Bush's Homeland Security Council raised the national threat level from yellow (elevated) to orange (high) on Feb. 7, the Department of Homeland Security urged Americans to prepare for a possible attack. It did not mean that a terrorist attack was imminent.
   In New York and Washington, D.C., last Tuesday after U.S. Fire Administrator David Paulison described a list of items which could be helpful after a biological, chemical or radiological attack -- sales of duct tape and plastic sheeting went through the roof.
   Would duct taping windows and doors be of much benefit in the event of such attacks? Wanda Moon, at the Tennessee Office of Homeland Security, said, "In answer to your question, we're not using it. That is something that started with the media and spread like wildfire. It didn't come through this office."
   Moon said the state office of Homeland Security has a Web site the public can access (www.state.tn.us/homelandsecurity) for useful information. Moon also encouraged the public to report anything that looks suspicious to local law enforcement first, and then the state office.
   "It's better to report something and it turn out to be nothing than to sit back and be concerned about it and let it keep you awake at night wondering: 'What if I had reported that?' Don't worry about it being minuscule; we'll be glad to take any information you've got," she said.
   Kim Fisk, coordinator of the Carter County Red Cross, said information is available to the public at the local office, located at 116 Holston Ave., in the same building as the 9-1-1 Emergency Communication Center. Red Cross hours are 10 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays.
   "We have information here in the office that I would love for people to come by and get. Some of it is the general disaster planning that we do all the time ... Some of it is new and is specifically geared toward terrorism," Fisk said.
   "The preparedness information available at www.redcross.org is specifically tailored for each color-coded threat level, giving the general public some practical preparedness guidelines that can make homes, schools, workplaces and communities safer during these uncertain times," Fisk said.
   Jim Burrough, director of the Elizabethton/Carter County Emergency Planning Agency, said the biggest challenge now facing the county is carrying out smallpox vaccination. The Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) will be addressing that issue and more at its 9 a.m. meeting Tuesday at the Carter County Health Center, 403 E. G St. A combined meeting between Carter and Johnson County officials will he held afterward.
   "We'll be meeting with the sheriff and the police chief, school superintendent and transportation supervisor, to try to figure out how we're going to do this once we get started," he said. "We may try to do it in alphabetical order or by school district." There are approximately 56,000 persons in Carter County and 17,000 in Johnson County.
   Once the vaccinations begin, Burrough said, "they've got 10 days to get it done." The county will enlist the aid of 200 volunteers to carry out the plan. Some serum already has been delivered to the county.
   The Emergency Management Agency and Red Cross recommend that everyone prepare for the terrorist threat just as they would for any other type disaster.
   "If everybody in this county can address themselves and stay in their houses for 72 hours and be self-sufficient without water running, having lights or the telephone working, then they don't have anything to worry about. If you have a cell phone, even if you've had it turned off, it will still work on 9-1-1. Plug it up and keep it charged.
   "Expect the worst, prepare for the worst -- and hope for the best," Burrough said. "You need to have some water, food, blankets, a battery-powered radio, a flashlight, and some auxiliary heat in case you don't have electricity. Even without this talk of war, that should be in every home. We've got pamphlets here about what you need to do for terrorism in your area."
   The public probably would be notified of a disaster by a message at the bottom of their television screens or by radio, Burrough said. "If something major happens, that's when the tornado siren sounds in Elizabethton. That tells you to turn on your radio to WBEJ Radio, AM-1240, and they will announce whatever it is and give advice on what to do and how to go about it.
   "If you've got an elderly person that lives near you, you need to make sure you take care of that person. That's what it's all about: Neighbors taking care of neighbors," he said.
   Back in the days of Civil Defense -- predecessor to Emergency Management -- the standard joke was that if someone were going to drop a bomb, the thing to do was get under a big bed, put your head between your legs and kiss your butt good-bye.
   Since then, things have changed. "A lot of people are putting storm rooms in their houses. They call it a 'family safe room,'" Burrough said. "It doesn't have any doors or anything; it just has a wall that slides and they can get in behind it."
   The county now has improved radio communications to better coordinate emergency workers in the event of a disaster, according to Burrough. "I spent about $20,000 through a Department of Justice grant on communications in Carter County. We've got what we call the 'E' channel. Whoever is working a particular disaster will go to the E channel and that way you're not tying up the day-to-day operations of the other channels. We also have an EMA channel now," which wasn't available at the time of the Carter County's last major disaster, the fire at North American Rayon Corp.
   Another improvement is a linking system with the Carter County Sheriff's Department, which has resulted in radio communication now available in remote areas. EMA next will seek a Department of Justice grant of $50,000 to purchase hazardous materials security equipment.
   Burrough said he believes the risk to Carter County is low, compared to other areas. "I think the biggest thing we've got in Carter County is the hydrodams, and I don't think that would do enough damage to suit those people [terrorists]." An explosion at Watauga or Wilbur dams could cause major flooding, he said, but with the way the dams are situated and the extra security surrounding them, they're not easy to get to.
   Burrough said the nearest facility that could be a source of concern is Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin. However, the amount of risk depends on "what the wind is doing at the time," since the prevailing wind takes in Carter County, he said. "But their emergency plan says that they call Carter County immediately."