Last month’s big anthrax scare may have quickly turned into a nonstory, but it surely left plenty of New Yorkers wondering exactly what they should do in the event that some madman does launch a doomsday attack on the city. The answer is more complicated now than it was when the catastrophic threat was a nuclear attack. In those days, the infrastructure – 13,000 fallout shelters – was in place, and the drill was simple: Listen for one of the city’s 741 air-raid sirens, head for the closest shelter, and settle in with your two-week supply of canned food, bottled water, phenobarbital, and hunger-suppressing candy.
Today, those sirens are gone, as are the shelters and everything in them. In New York City, disaster-relief responsibility now lies with the two-year-old Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management and its $137,000-a-year director, Jerome M. Hauer. Mayor Giuliani created the 38-person office – its responsibilities used to belong to the Police Department – under his direct control after the January 1996 blizzard that buried the city in two feet of snow. At the time, Giuliani said the move was required to “ensure that the city has a professionally trained staff available at all times” to respond to such crises as “weather disasters, power failures, water-main breaks, building collapses, fires, health hazards, and labor strikes.”
The mayor’s failure to mention chemical or biological attacks was not an accident. After all, for strategic reasons, even government administrations less prone to secrecy than Giuliani’s don’t like to reveal their plans for dealing with such occurrences.
“We discussed having a hearing on this a couple of years ago, after the gas attack in the Tokyo subway,” said Councilman Sheldon Leffler, chairman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, referring to the 1995 incident that killed twelve people and injured 5,000. “I was told that the administration would not discuss its plans publicly for fear of giving information to a potential saboteur.”
The best display of what New York is ready for was staged last November: a four-hour drill on Greenwich Street in TriBeCa that was the largest and most visible event of its kind in the city. Nearly 1,000 police officers, firefighters, and FBI agents – some of them clad in protective moon suits – responded to the mock release of soman gas. The media was alerted in advance, and reporters and photographers were there to take it all in: emergency workers barricading the street, inflating a portable decontaminating shower, carrying stricken “victims” to safety. Officials described the exercise as successful; the response time for the emergency crews was three minutes, and hazardous-materials teams removed the “injured” from the contaminated area within twenty minutes. Officials acknowledged, however, that had the attack been real, it probably would not have come on a Sunday, aboveground, and on a nearly deserted block.
The November drill was the latest of a dozen similar exercises held in the past few years. All of the city’s ambulances are stocked with atropine, which, among other things, is an antidote to sarin gas. Such medicine is crucial because sarin can kill instantly, although most ambulances do not carry enough to treat more than a few people. Bellevue Hospital, where the emergency room plays host to a disaster drill about twice a year, is also stocked with atropine. (The effects of biological agents like anthrax are treated with antibiotics.)
Managing any such disaster will be Hauer, who is becoming one of the city’s ubiquitous public officials, appearing on the scenes of building collapses, helicopter crashes, and water-main breaks, and even at the press conference to announce last year’s $8 million anti-rat initiative. He has the power to give orders to all city commissioners, including those heading the Police and Fire departments, and his aggressive style has offended some, such as the residents of a crumbling Stanton Street building that the city quickly had evacuated and then demolished in January without allowing tenants to retrieve their pets and belongings.
Hauer has said he believes the city is “light-years ahead of any other city in the country for dealing with the threat of biological terrorism.” But no one can, or will, say just what it takes to be fully prepared. One EMS source scoffs at the city’s rhetoric and its rescue drills. “It’s nothing but window-dressing,” he says. “New York may be the best-prepared city in the country, but that just tells you how totally unprepared everybody else is.”
When an argument broke out a couple of weeks ago between Congressman Chuck Schumer and the city administration over whether the city has enough gas masks for its emergency workers (no one ever mentioned what that number was or what it should be), it would have been reasonable for people to ask: What about me? Do I get a gas mask?
Well, if you think you need one, you’re probably best off not waiting for the city to hand them out. Spy shops in Manhattan are selling a $289 model known as the Smoke Hood by Drager, designed with the modern-day bio-terrorist in mind. If that’s a bit steep, Iceberg Army Navy in SoHo has Israeli Army surplus gas masks on sale for $35, half off the usual price.