Questions of Survival

Q: What should you do if you’ve been exposed to a dirty bomb?
A: First, it’s important to understand that a dirty bomb is not a weapon of mass destruction – if you survive the explosion itself, you’ll more than likely be fine. At first, you probably won’t know whether what’s just exploded is a dirty bomb – essentially a conventional bomb surrounded by radioactive material. So it’s important not to leave the scene, even if you’re not injured; authorities in moon suits will come to you. A common misconception is that you should strip naked immediately. While you definitely want to destroy your clothes, waiting until you get to the hospital is perfectly okay. At the hospital, the first order of business is a body scan to confirm radiation. If it’s present, doctors would wash your hair and body (and collect the suds to prevent contaminating the sewers), and fluids would be given to help flush the radioactive material out of your system.

Q: Should you stock up on potassium-iodide pills? And what do they do, anyway?
A: Radioactive iodine isotopes are dangerous because the thyroid has a spongelike ability to store them. Potassium-iodide pills saturate the thyroid with clean iodine, thereby blocking the intake of the bad stuff. Dirty bombs would probably be constructed with radioactive materials like cesium 137 and strontium 90 – which are used in machines for everything from treating cancer to irradiating food – not radioactive iodine of the kind that would likely be released during a nuclear explosion or a meltdown at a reactor. Although Westchester County has distributed free iodide pills to residents in case of an attack on the Indian Point nuclear plant, many experts stress the dangers of preventive doses of iodine. “You could have an adverse side effect to the pills,” says Roger Hagengruber, a senior VP of national security and arms control at Sandia Labs. If you do keep them on hand, you should take them as soon as you’re reasonably certain you’ll be exposed.

Q:What should you do in case of a chemical attack?
A: If you’re outside, find shelter as soon as possible – the first unlocked door. Close all windows and doors. Turn off all heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems that draw air from outside. Seal all windows, doors, and ventilators with duct tape. Don’t go to the basement, however; most of the likely chemical agents – like GA (Tabun), GB (Sarin), and VX (methylphosphonothioic acid) – are heavier than air; they tend to seep downward and collect there.

Q: What about a biological attack?
A: Go inside. Follow the same procedure for sealing your home that you would for a chemical attack. Wash hands and other exposed skin with soap and water. And don’t panic. Since biological agents like anthrax or smallpox can take from three to fourteen days to act, there is time to notice the exposure and seek treatment. Anthrax can be effectively treated with antibiotics – remember Cipro – and isn’t contagious. Smallpox vaccine is effective even after exposure – the vaccine works faster than the disease.

Q: Is smallpox vaccine available? And when should you take it?
A: Not to the public, except in an emergency. The vaccine is owned by the government, and the only people to receive vaccinations are a few hundred scientists and medical professionals who deal directly with smallpox-type viruses. There’s a stockpile of 15.4 million doses, and the government expects to have a total of 286 million doses by the end of the year. Precautionary vaccination is recommended only for bioterrorism and for public-health officials as well as the health-care workers who would be responding to smallpox cases.

Q: What should you tell your children about terrorism?
A: Children don’t worry about terrorism as terrorism; they worry about things that might affect them. Their greatest fears are that someone will be injured or killed, that they will be separated from the family, or that they will be left alone. FEMA suggests discussing the disaster in terms of the possible effects that children can comprehend, like loss of electricity, and reassuring them that there are many people – firemen, police officers, teachers, neighbors – who will be able to help. In addition, even very young children should be taught when and how to call for emergency assistance. It’s also advisable to have children memorize the number of a contact in another city; after a disaster, long-distance lines often remain in service when local ones are down. After a terrorist attack, the most important thing, studies suggest, is to maintain a routine with which the child is familiar, to allow him to be more dependent on you for a time, to accept his feelings and reactions, and to shield him from television news coverage, discussing the incident with him yourself. Seeking professional help is necessary only when behavior becomes extreme, as when children begin having serious behavioral or academic problems, withdrawing from usual social activities, exhibiting depression, or focusing on the event to an extraordinary degree.

Q: What radio stations should you tune in to in the event of an attack?
A:The designated station in times of emergency is 1340 AM. But the FCC’s voluntary Emergency Alert System, which is used primarily to warn about severe weather and hazardous chemical spills, is locally managed and runs on digital technology that allows messages to be sent out through all participating radio and broadcast and cable-TV stations, even if those stations have to be evacuated.

Q: What else has the city done recently to prepare for terror?
A: After September 11, the city hired McKinsey & Co. to review its police and fire emergency procedures. Aside from creating a counterterrorism bureau headed by a retired Marine general and an intelligence bureau headed up by a CIA veteran, the NYPD has hinted that it may keep a “shadow staff” on hand if senior officers are killed in another attack. The Fire Department is said to be tightening its chain of command, and for the first time, police and fire radios will be compatible. Some federal money has come in for radiation detectors and bioterrorism medication. Politicians are focusing on everything from better communications technology (one of the few programs to evade Bloomberg’s budget ax) to adding security at Penn Station (a Chuck Schumer production). And Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum is preparing a free brochure with tips on how to assemble an evacuation kit with, among other items, clothing, a whistle, a compass, and sunscreen. “We urge New Yorkers to be alert and mindful of potential disasters,” the brochure reads, “but to continue enjoying life in our great city.”

Q: Where would Mayor Bloomberg go (piloting his own helicopter, perhaps)in an emergency?
A: Mayor Bloomberg has moved his emergency command center from its post–September 11 location at Manhattan’s Pier 92 to two temporary sites in Brooklyn: one in an abandoned warehouse at 11 Water Street beneath the overpass to the Brooklyn Bridge, and one in a windowless brick building just north of Coney Island. The 40,000-square-foot, $3.8 million Water Street facility is equipped with a backup power generator, a weather station, a GIS mapping system, and a 24-hour-watch command center. Still, in light of warnings about attacks on city landmarks, a command center underneath the Brooklyn Bridge seems like a questionable idea at best.

Q: Why can’t we just scan every point of entry in New York for radioactive materials?
A:“We would like to be able to put detectors out in as widespread a manner as we can,” says Dr. Ralph James, associate laboratory director for national security at Brookhaven National Laboratory. “But since that comes at a cost, we want to focus first on transportation choke points: tunnels, bridges, rail-transport systems, maybe airports.” Possible price tag? Two hundred fifty million. Brookhaven is already at work on equipment to scan large intermodal containers used in ports. And it’s developing a low-cost sensor pack to be integrated in the container itself, which could communicate via wireless – scanning the container before it even gets to port. Ultimately, James would like to see every postal worker, policeman, and fireman equipped with a cheaper form of scanner. “Disperse them throughout the city and network their detectors together,” he says, “so someone in a processing center could see a number of sensors all going off in one specific area.”

Q: Should you build a safe room at home?
A: Only if your portfolio hasn’t been severely battered; these things don’t come cheap: “Somebody could spend $20,000 to $30,000 for a safe room,” says Robert Davis of Red Alert, Inc., which manufactures and installs them, “and someone else could spend $200,000 for a really safe room. Air filtration. Oxygen. The options are limitless. Most, though, are for paranoid, wealthy people.” For budget-conscious survivalists, the American Red Cross offers the following instructions for how to “shelter in place”: Choose an inner room. Close and lock all windows and exterior doors. Turn off fans and heating and air-conditioning systems. Tape Styrofoam sheets over any windows. Stick self-adhesive rubber sealing strips around the window frames. Tape heavy plastic over windows and doorways. Seal locks, outlets, and other openings. Block any openings that are difficult to seal with cloths soaked in bleach and water.

Q: Should you keep gold – the actual glittering metal – on hand?
A:Maybe you should have asked this as you were doubling down on WorldCom… . But in the event of an attack, probably not. Charles Norton, a portfolio manager at hedge fund GNI Capital, argues that holding gold bullion is impractical, because it’s “expensive to store” and “cumbersome to transport,” especially if you have to move in a hurry. A better choice, Norton suggests, would be to invest in gold-futures contracts or gold stocks, which would most likely rise if there was an attack.

Q: What do Israelis know about terror that you should learn?
A: The Israel Defense Forces’ Homefront Command provides every household with a weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) protective kit containing gas masks for the entire family as well as a small store of atropine to be used in case of a nerve-gas attack. Moreover, every newly constructed house and apartment building must be designed with a separate, sealed safety room, known as an “apartment protected space” or, more lyrically, as a merhav mugan dirati in Hebrew. These bunkers have heavy steel doors and are outfitted with battery-operated radios tuned to emergency-broadcast stations. Not surprisingly, home security has become a boom industry. For those willing to spend the shekels, the options are almost limitless. There are concrete-and-steel reinforcement for the walls and ceilings and sophisticated air-purification systems to eliminate the need for wearing masks. Popular during the Gulf War was the Protective Infant Carrier, better known as the “cocoon,” essentially a crib within a plastic bubble, fed with motor-driven streams of fresh air.

Q: How worried should you be be about the water supply?
A:Not very. According to the Department of Environmental Protection, it would be almost impossible to contaminate the city’s water. Because our system is so vast – nineteen reservoirs covering a total of 1,900 square miles supply more than 1.3 billion gallons of water to the city daily – any toxins introduced into it would be so diluted as to be harmless. “You would literally have to be up there with tractor-trailer trucks dumping stuff for days to put anything in of any concern,” says DEP commissioner Chris Ward. All of the reservoirs are tested daily for pathogens, so contamination would be detected almost immediately.A more serious concern is that intake valves or dams could be sabotaged. Even before September 11, the DEP had begun fortifying potentially vulnerable spots. Since then, the agency has added $70 million to the security budget – hiring 70 additional police officers to supplement its 140-person force, setting up infrared cameras and installing “tickler wires” to detect intruders.

Q: What’s ground zero of the biggest political-celebrity battle over terror threats?
A:It’s Indian Point, on the Hudson 40 miles north of New York City. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who’s wanted the place closed for years, has said a meltdown there could release several times as much radiation as Chernobyl, contaminating up to 50 miles – possibly including New York City – and causing $600 billion in damage. Kennedy and other anti-nuclear activists claim the plant has five vulnerable spots, including containment domes and “spent”-fuel pools. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, these areas were not built to withstand impact by a large commercial jet. Indian Point officials insist the plant is safe: The storage facilities are mostly underground, encased by steel-reinforced concrete walls that are six feet thick. As a test, Sandia National Laboratories sent an F-4 fighter crashing into a similar containment wall at almost 500 miles an hour. The jet disintegrated into dust after penetrating just 2.4 inches. Besides, Indian Point says that if the control room was infiltrated by terrorists and the personnel there killed, other workers could shut down the reactor in two seconds. Right after September 11, the Coast Guard offered the plant full-time security. Now it does only periodic checks, but the plant remains under military surveillance. Still, when Scott Cullen, executive director of the star Foundation (Standing for the Truth About Radiation), took a group out on a boat to test the water by the Millstone Nuclear Power Station on the Long Island Sound in Connecticut, they dug up sediment with a large rake – without ever laying eyes on a Coast Guard interceptor. “We could’ve been building a rocket,” he says.Governor Pataki has just ordered a review of Indian Point’s security procedures.

Q: Where can you get more information?
A:The Office of the Public Advocate (212-669-7250) is preparing a brochure detailing preparedness techniques (including its own “evacuation kit”), information resources, and an overview of the city’s response to the threats. The American Red Cross (; 866-GET-INFO) offers everything from an explanation of the color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System to documents outlining how to help children cope with terrorist attacks. The New York Office of Emergency Management (; 718-422-4800) has a host of disaster-planning documents – “How to Prepare Food During a Disaster,” “Your Family Disaster Plan.” And if you see a shifty character carting hazardous waste toward midtown, you’ll need the number for the NYPD Anti-Terrorism Hotline: 888-NYC-SAFE.

Reported by Joy Armstrong, Sara Cardace, Emily Gitter, Betsy Goldberg, George Kalogerakis, Robert Kolker, Rebecca Meiser, Deborah Shapiro, Abby Tegnelia, Alex Williams, and Jada Yuan.


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