All Duct Up
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!")
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."
In the days following 9/11, Shell and other industrial plants found that security had been lax -- and more concerned with people stealing things from inside the plant, or bringing in alcohol, than with any attacks from outside. "Every facility around here found it had things to improve, like fencing or lighting," he says. "Things get old and break down, and maybe they're not high on the priority list. So things that were taken for granted were fixed. We're ready for anything short of a suicide bomber" in a plane.
Communication among companies in the port area has increased tremendously, whether it's a sophisticated, coded e-mail tree where the FBI passes on information or quashes rumors, or trading tips on the best contractors for fencing or barriers.
"There's been an increase in the level of cooperation and coordination and information-sharing between the local, state and federal governments," says Craig McDowell, Houston's emergency-management director. "It was there before, but not close to the extent that it's there now."
In some ways, the things that make Houston a living hell for some people are what make it one of the best-prepared places in terms of responding to a terrorist attack. The malevolent chemical stuff regularly carried through the city, on railcars or in tanker trucks, could spill and cause more of a disaster than some terrorists. And the area's hazardous-material teams train for such spills regularly, to the point where they have been visited often since 9/11 by other cities looking for ways to deal with the sudden introduction of toxic agents.
"The environment we live in here, we're prepared to respond to all that. It gives us a leg up; we're not starting from square one," McDowell says. "We don't care how it happens, whether it's a railcar rolling through town that falls off the track or it's done on purpose. It makes a difference afterward, in terms of investigation and what's done about it, but the first response is going to be similar."
McDowell is getting ready to move into a new bunker-type emergency- services headquarters on North Shepherd. There the regular exercises will continue, from full-scale disaster drills with volunteers playing the role of victims to "tabletop" problems where representatives of local agencies sit around and declare what they will do.
Another thing that made most Houstonians' list of things to hate about the city -- Tropical Storm Allison -- actually proved to be a boon to McDowell's training.
"Allison gave us a real opportunity -- it hit the Medical Center hard and took those assets offline," he says. "We'd done drills where we'd ask, 'What would happen if there was a problem with the Medical Center?' It gave us the opportunity to try to coordinate activities. Some things needed to be tweaked."
In that same Medical Center, in the building of the University of Texas School of Public Health, Dr. Scott Lillibridge ponders the no-longer-unthinkable.
His mild manner and everyday looks belie a travel history that would better belong to a hard-bitten mercenary: trips to the battlefields of Rwanda, Liberia, Afghanistan, the Congo and Kuwait. His specialty is dealing with mass emergency-health issues, whether they're caused by civil war, epidemics or terrorist explosions. He went to Oklahoma City after the Timothy McVeigh bombing, and to Tokyo after the sarin gas attack in the city's subway system.
Four years ago, when he first started a concerted effort to get government entities in the United States interested in such things, he found it tough.
"Getting people together to talk about terrorism and preparing for it was like getting them together to talk about being prepared for getting hit by an asteroid," he says. "They were like, 'Get a real job!' "
He worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and for the Department of Health and Human Services before coming to the UT Health Science Center last August. He is creating the Center for Biosecurity and Public Health Preparedness, an organization that will train frontline responders, research safety issues and provide expertise for local governments dealing with terrorism threats.
With the exponential increase in interest in such issues and with a Texan in the White House, UT officials are forcefully trying to stake out a position as a leader in the field. Visions of being to bioterrorism what NASA is to space are, if not quite bandied about, then quietly but enthusiastically worked toward.
"There's no reason that Houston cannot be a regional site for training and preparedness for homeland security like NASA is for space," Lillibridge says.
That may or may not happen -- there are 19 similar centers at public-health schools across the country, although none in Texas -- but Lillibridge is being counted on to be an adept infighter for federal funding.
He relishes the role.
"We'll be helping to get increased funding for city and county health departments here through the CDC," he says. "We were very underfunded in terms of preparedness money -- L.A., Chicago and New York were funded as if they were separate states, but they drew the line at Houston."
Lillibridge says the city and county get about $4 million to $5 million in CDC funding each year now, about $10 million less each year than they would get if funded like the larger cities. "So in four or five years we would have missed $50 million in funds for infrastructure," he says.
The infrastructure needs include everything from epidemic control to disease detection and lab surveillance. Like computers, where technology that once was limited to only the best-funded entities is now on everyone's desktop, the mechanics of bioterrorism are becoming more and more available.
"We're in the middle of an explosion of biomedicine," Lillibridge says. "The technology is moving into a wider range of scientists. Thousands of labs have capabilities that didn't have those capabilities before."
Part of what UT will be doing is researching how best to detect such labs. UT staff also will have high-tech facilities of its own to study how best to fight a bioterrorist attack.
The UT Medical Branch in Galveston will be opening a "Level Four" lab this summer, one that's cleared to work with such pathogens as Ebola and smallpox. "It's going to provide tremendous infectious-disease firepower in terms of research and response," Lillibridge says.
What worries him most in the short term, he says, is the limited bed space in local hospitals should a terrorist attack occur. The phenomenon is called "clinical surge capacity."
"We don't have a lot of empty beds lying around, as hospitals try to increase efficiency," Lillibridge says. "There are less beds, and the beds that are there are staffed 100 percent. You have trauma centers going on drive-by status every so often. What that tells me is that the critical surge capacity is limited. We have to create some elasticity in it somehow."
The type of attack that concerns him most right now, he says, is smallpox. Worst-case scenarios in the media talk of infected "suicide bombers" wandering around, spreading smallpox in populated American cities.
Some experts say that by the time such terrorists would be most able to spread the disease, they would be such a hacking, pus-infected mess that no one would go near them. But even if only a relatively small number of Houstonians were infected, dealing with the resulting panic, handling the media circus and providing the necessary public-health response would be a daunting job.
Investigators would work frantically to determine who might have been exposed to the disease; government and health officials would have to use the media to stop any type of panicked rush by everyone in the city to get vaccinated immediately. Or, if the disease was determined to have spread far enough, a massive vaccination program would have to be implemented.
"In the anthrax attacks, only five people died, yet it was extremely expensive, disruptive and frightening," Lillibridge says. "Only a few cases of smallpox in a major metropolitan area would be an emergency. We could handle it, but people would drop everything -- it could affect transportation, for instance. You might not be allowed to drive in and out of the city without a vaccination certificate."
As for Lillibridge's family -- which includes a daughter born September 11, 2001 -- the reaction would be simple. "If you're not exposed to it you won't get it," he says. "So I would just tell my family to stay home."
It's just such a doomsday scenario that has been the driving force behind the utopian vision of Noah's Ark 2, the survivalist camp for liberals.
The man behind the project doesn't want to talk about it, give tours of it or have his name published ("My wife is freaking" at the thought of his name being published, he says by e-mail. "My dad is afraid for my job, etc, and who knows what the idiots will do.")
But a brochure, which has been handed out at meetings of various local Democratic groups, gives a pretty good idea of what is happening in the woods two hours northwest of Houston. While the land can be used as a weekend getaway -- bring your own tepee, yurt or dome -- it is also intended as "a last-minute 'throw-n'go' family survival insurance policy" in case of a terror attack.
"We can just throw some things in the car and be at NA2 on less than half a tank of gas, finding our second home-away-from-home with its pre-positioned supplies in our own secret location(s)," the brochure reads. "And knowing we will meet there with other helpful, compassionate and dedicated friends is a psychological comfort. We imagine dealing with some panic, and 'how to expect the unexpected.' "
"Dealing with some panic," indeed -- the brochure says the isolated location was chosen because "We wanted to be away from any major population centers, should towns and cities become slightly unmanageable, with food riots, etc."
Once the bank note on the land is paid off -- three years and $19,000 from now -- the owner says, he will consider arrangements such as letting others purchase part of the land, rent-to-own, even time shares. (Details can be had by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.)
This being a liberal encampment, the brochure includes plenty of discussion of how arguments will be settled, how management is not "top-down," and how some folks may not cut it ("If someone is continuously or intentionally draining the group's physical or psychological energies, then that person may be asked to leave, get help, and then perhaps return," the brochure states.)
The world outlook is pretty gloomy in the brochure. "Presently we think that our world is in a 'calm before the storm' and 'phony war' state," it says. "Governments position themselves for survival or altruism. Everyone goes about acting normally punctuated by periods of semi-panic Although wars are beginning now, we hope that the slow devolution of normalcy doesn't impact us too directly and immediately."
Actually, "periods of semi-panic" may not be too bad a description of life in the United States and Houston these days: There are plenty of people in town feeling a little bit sheepish about the large amount of duct tape they suddenly own.
Tonya Harrison, manager of the Lowe's near Bunker Hill and Interstate 10, says her store did indeed sell out of six cases of up to 24 rolls each in the initial days of the scare. There was no stampede at the door, but the supply went fast, she says. And it's not over yet -- "We're still selling more of it than we used to in an average week," she says.
"Ever since 9/11, you kind of carry on with your daily life, but it's always there in the back of your mind," says Carol Mills, the Poe Elementary parent told to stock up on emergency Slim Jims for her eight-year-old. "My daughter asks me all the time, 'Did they catch that bad man yet?' They think about it, these kids. It's sad that they have to deal with it."
Mills didn't join the duct tape brigade -- "If something happened, I guess I'd just grab my kid and the dogs and head to Canada," she says -- and she's not about to start building a bomb shelter.
Houston isn't too well suited for bomb shelters, being on a swamp and all. As it turns out, though, there is one semi-famous bomb shelter in town.
In the 5100 block of Jackwood in Meyerland, there's a house that does indeed have a bomb shelter. In 1955, when Soviet bombs could have landed at any moment (according to the government), the U.S. Civil Defense Department paid the family that lived there $300 to spend 72 hours in it as part of Operation Take Cover. Life magazine ran a photo spread.
That family is long gone, but the bomb shelter remains.
For a long time it was used as an extra closet, a space to hold whatever junk couldn't be stashed elsewhere. But current owner Shirley Perry didn't clear it out and seal it with plastic sheeting when the latest terror alert occurred.
By then it had been taken over by her 17-year-old grandson.
"He watches TV down there; he's got his guitar and his VCR and whatever," Perry says. "I've never been down there myself -- I have an inner-ear problem, so I don't want to try it."
"I'm old enough that I just think whatever happens will happen," she says. "And when it does, there's nothing you can do about it."
That fatalistic attitude is likely more common than it appears. Even with duct tape selling out, even with increased port patrols, tightened security, experts worrying their way through hypotheticals, most Houstonians are thinking only sporadically of these tense times.
The thought of a terrorism attack isn't stopping anyone from going to the rodeo or the Rockets. (Bad weather and lousy shooting, instead, are doing what Osama or Saddam can't.)
Perhaps a few more people are crossing their fingers whenever they drive through Refinery Row in Pasadena, but most everyone holds their breath on that road anyway (for one reason or another).
Nevertheless, the tension that has arrived with 9/11 and fluctuating colors of terror warnings isn't about to go away anytime soon in Houston.
And Lillibridge, for one, thinks we're in a good spot, with top-notch hazardous-material teams, the Texas Medical Center and well-trained first-responders.
"Preparing for a terrorist attack used to be a backwater thing, something you'd do on the fringes, dealing with potential lunatics," he says. "What's changed is that the quality of the health and medical community in your city has become strategically important to your chances of survival in the world we live in," he says.
That's comforting. One supposes.
It won't stop the duct tape sales, or the emergency supplies of trail mix, or the liberal encampments ready for Armageddon. But that's life these days in the United States, and in Houston.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.