February 8, 2003

Supermom v. The Terror Alert: A Preparedness Guide

By: Mary Siddall

When the new Department of Homeland Security raised the national terrorism threat level from yellow (elevated risk) to orange (high risk) last Friday, rumors started flying that a dirty bomb attack in Washington was imminent. So after conferring with one of my yoga-mom friends, we decided to load the kids and dog in the car and make the trek out to Home Depot in Northern Virginia–where the sniper hit–to stock up on plastic sheeting, duct tape, extra batteries, and flash lights. We were not alone.

While I was fastening my daughter into the grocery cart seat, a harried-looking woman running out of the store knocked her cart into me, spilling all of the contents onto the sidewalk. I didn’t see any batteries or flashlights. What I saw was bizarre: heavy-duty plastic containers (she told me they were to store food and waste), several pairs of goggles that seemed to need no explanation, and various kinds of respirators.

The mild sense of hysteria I sensed walking into the store exploded once we were inside. David Brook’s “Bobos” gone haywire: Men in trench coats and business suits and well-heeled housewives jamming up the paint section to vie for plastic drop cloths. All that was left when we arrived were a few 100 ft. rolls of 6-mil thick plastic sheeting. The 1-mil rolls, the minimum you need for a safe room, were sold out. Gone too were the N95 particulate respirators necessary to keep out radioactive contaminants. But that didn’t seem to matter, people were buying whatever flimsy masks were left on the shelves.

I was happy to see that Eveready flashlights with 6-volt batteries were on sale for $5.97. My son John loves flashlights, so I bought three and one really cool stainless steel Maglite that also doubles as a bludgeon. Batteries and duct tape were plentiful. And everyone knows that you can never have enough batteries and duct tape–even in times of peace–so I bought enough batteries to keep John’s Tonka trucks in commission for several years, and enough duct tape to wrap a city block.

On our way home we decided to stop by the Giant to pick up a few 2.5-gallon jugs of water. The store was completely ransacked (and mind you this was days before the blizzard). All that was left was a shelf of Giant brand gallons of distilled water. A friend of mine who traveled to Costco later in the day told me that they were completely sold out of water too. I guess when the White House tells you to assemble a disaster supply kit people don’t mess around. They run out to the nearest store they can find and buy all the water and toilet paper they can get their hands on.

On Thursday while I was writing this piece and preparing for my daughter’s Baptism, I got a phone call and several emails that the threat level was about to go red. So putting the silver polishing aside for a few minutes, I finished taping up my back windows, made a few phone calls, and surfed the Internet for some more news.

Nothing happened thank God, and apparently the whole heightened alert was based on misinformation, but I’m glad it happened in a way. I wasn’t able to attend the AFF Roundtable in July on how to prepare for a terrorist attack, but I saved AFF’s Room 101 with all the links to readyprep.com in my inbox. I also saved the “Family Preparedness Guide” that the District of Columbia mailed me in November and have used it as a folder for odd news clips about the D.C. emergency plan. I ordered my “Dirty Bomb Protection Kit” a few months ago and keep my radiation-blocking potassium iodide pills and N95 respirator masks with me at all times. But the orange alert forced me to get my act together and come up with a family emergency plan right away.

So after several days of intense Internet research and phone chatter, these are my thoughts and recommendations for D.C. residents:

1. The most important thing you need to have in a dirty bomb attack is information. If for some reason the power grid goes out, you’ll want to have access to a battery-operated or hand-cranked radio. “Officials,” whoever they might be (the District doesn’t seem to have a real handle on who they are yet), will tell you whether to stay put or evacuate.

2. If they tell you to evacuate, then you’ll need two things: a family communications plan and a way out.

A family communications plan simply means that you predetermine a place to meet before you get on the road and figure out a way to pass messages back and forth if the local lines are jammed up. You’ll want to pick two meeting places in the event that you can’t meet at your house – one in your neighborhood and one a mile or so from your neighborhood.

Once you’re all together and ready to get out of dodge, you’ll need to know the best way out. The Washingtonian reports that the BBC has waiting boats on the Potomac and The Georgetowner says that you can rent a canoe at Fletcher’s Boathouse and row the C&O canal up to Cumberland Maryland. “It’s only 180 miles away, and it’s very scenic all the way.”

Like most of us though, you’ll probably be driving a car. Pennsylvania Avenue will be closed down. Those south will have to drive south and those north of Pennsylvania will have to head out north. The Washington Post Web site has a nice evacuation map in their “personal preparedness guide.” They also list various trains that you can take if you don’t have a car.

3. If officials tell you to stay home, then you’ll need all the normal things (things you probably already have on hand) that you’d need during a heavy snow storm: food, water, flashlights, etc.

4. Lastly, there is not much information out there on the fallout of a dirty bomb attack. The only thing scientists have to go on is Hiroshima and Chernobyl. Those within the immediate blast zone would die, of course, just like with a conventional bomb. But those just outside the blast would probably only suffer mild radiation poisoning and maybe down the line get cancer.

So to ward off these two nasty side effects, there are a couple of things you can do. Most radiological contaminants can be removed simply by taking your clothes off and washing exposed hair and skin. You definitely don’t want to breath in the dust, so taking your potassium iodide pills and putting on your N95 particulate respirator mask (that you have with you at all times) will keep you from doing that.

And here’s where the duct tape and plastic sheeting come in. If you’re told to stay put and you live within a few blocks of where the bomb went off, you’ll be glad that you have these materials on hand to block out any harmful dust that blows your way. If you live in an old house like I do, I recommend caulking or taping the windows and cutting the plastic sheeting in advance so that you have it ready to go if you need it.

Having airtight windows is a good thing anyway, especially in these blizzard conditions. Three days ago when we were doing a practice run of Elizabeth’s Baptism, my husband kidded the rector that the weather called for heavy snow coupled with light terrorist attacks. We felt safe this morning on both fronts: the godfather, an extreme driving specialist, navigated us through the District’s unplowed roads in his all-wheel-drive and several Secret Service officers guarded the church doors. We thought we might see Mayor Anthony Williams, but we soon learned that he had fled to Puerto Rico.