All Duct Up

From leftist camps and corporate security to semi-panic and port patrols, Houstonians tackle terrorism threats. Sort of.

Stafford is a nondescript Fort Bend County suburb with maybe 10,000 residents. Leonard Scarcella, mayor of the sleepy commuter city, recently outlined his goals for the town in the coming year: enhancing Stafford's appearance, renovating City Hall to include a municipal court and "continuing to support ethnic and religious diversity."

And, at the top of the list: defending against a massive terrorist attack.

"Adequately preparing our city and our citizens for an unexpected catastrophic event is our greatest challenge and must be our top goal," Scarcella said in his annual state-of-the-city speech in January. (Somewhere in a darkened Afghanistan cave, Osama bin Laden is most likely not saying, "Curses! The infidels at Stafford have discovered our plans!")

Coast Guard patrols regularly board container ships headed to the port.
CWO Rob Wyman
Coast Guard patrols regularly board container ships headed to the port.
Speedboats, planes and helicopters are used to patrol the Ship Channel area.
CWO Rob Wyman
Speedboats, planes and helicopters are used to patrol the Ship Channel area.

Near Houston's Museum District, parents of kids at Poe Elementary received a letter February 13 about the school's "Shelter in Place" program. "To further prepare for the possibility of biological and/or chemical attack," the letter read, parents should donate perishable foods such as boxed raisins, "beef jerky and Slim Jims," individual bags of trail mix and chips, and "bags of hard candy."

"It scared the crap out of me, basically," parent Carol Mills said. "I work five minutes from the school, and it scares me to death -- what if something happens and I couldn't get to my kid's school?"

The February terror alert also led to the City of Houston's Citizens Assistance Office getting deluged with calls. "People were calling to ask if the city had bomb shelters; does the city have something like tornado alarms that would warn of a terrorist attack," spokesman Corey Ray says (the answer: no to both questions). "People sounded a little panicked. This alarm, for some reason, got a lot more attention from people than the first several ones did."

Houstonians who didn't necessarily get letters from school worried about protecting themselves in their homes. A national spokesman for the home-improvement chain Lowe's said Texas was, along with the Northeast and California, home to the biggest surges in duct-tape sales during the recent orange-level security alert. (Although spokesman Matt Van Vleet doesn't make any claims for the anti-terror capabilities of duct tape: "We're not giving any advice on how to use this stuff," he says.)

In the woods two hours northwest of town, left-leaning Houstonians are building a survivalist camp for liberals that they call Noah's Ark 2; its brochure says it's designed for "long-term optimists and short-term realists."

And in the Texas Medical Center, dreams of establishing what would be "the NASA of [anti]bioterrorism" are gaining speed. In Galveston, a (hopefully) secure lab is about to open that will bring fearsome biological agents such as Ebola and smallpox to the island to be studied.

All across Houston, living in the new, tense world of potential terrorism has brought changes.

It's a somewhat perverse manifestation of the boosterism bug that infects all Americans, but it's nevertheless true that every U.S. city wants to be thought of as a target for terrorists. No one -- whether they live in a small town like Stafford or a large city like Phoenix or Pittsburgh -- wants to be thought of as unimportant enough to be not worth attacking.

Memphis and Des Moines no doubt have come up with reasons why they are just as likely to be under the gun as the big boys. Houston, too, was eager to be counted on the most-endangered list; unfortunately enough, there's probably good reason to believe it's true.

The city is rife with vulnerable targets -- a huge port, massive refineries -- whose destruction, or crippling, could have widespread and long-lasting economic effects in the country. That's not just hometown boosterism talking -- the federal government has designated Houston one of only four places in the country to receive a U.S. Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Team (the others are the ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Seattle and Portsmouth, Virginia, home to facilities for the U.S. Navy and industry).

The special squads consist of 104 members patrolling the port and surrounding areas by boat, helicopter and plane, says Petty Officer Third Class Andrew Kendrick. In 2002, he says, the Coast Guard conducted 1,300 "home security boardings" of boats or ships in the Houston area. There's a safety zone established around the port now, banning the small passenger boats that used to cruise the Ship Channel for fun. Container ships coming in must now send information on crew and cargo 96 hours ahead of docking, instead of 24.

In the refineries and chemical plants that line the Ship Channel or dot the surrounding area, increased security has become a way of life. In the past, you could drive the mile or so from Highway 225 to the front door of the Shell Chemical Plant in Deer Park; now you're stopped at the front gate. "It used to be you'd let the delivery guy flash a badge, come in and drop boxes," spokesman David McKinney says. "Now we control people outside of the property -- the pizza guy is not going to come in without some serious scrutiny. In fact, people have to go out to the gate to pick it up; we're not letting that delivery guy inside."

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