A physicians’ group is advocating renewed attention to civil defense in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, noting that the kind of mass casualties once believed “unthinkable” in the U.S. are now a distinct possibility.
The group, Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, headed by Jane Orient, M.D. and based in Tucson, Ariz., has promoted “homeland defense and prudent preparedness for disasters of all kinds” since 1986.
But, the group says, as the U.S. emerged as the world’s only remaining superpower in the early 1990’s, attention to civil defense has slackened considerably.
For example, Orient says, though many underground civil defense facilities may still exist, the supplies used to stock those facilities were sold off by the government long ago.
“Most Americans assume that the government of the world’s only superpower is taking care of us, especially now that the Cold War is over,” she said. “We are shocked at the events of Sept. 11, but they could have been worse, much worse.”
“This time the holy warriors of the Islamic jihad used an airplane and jet fuel. But they might already have a suitcase nuke or two – possibly hijacked or bought from China, or maybe even sent from Russia with love,” says Orient, noting that nuclear, chemical or biological agents could be used to kill Americans next time.
Indeed, letters containing anthrax spores are already being sent through the mail, exposing at least a dozen people to the disease and infecting four. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told “Fox News Sunday” that the sending of anthrax through the mail was an “act of terrorism,” though he stopped short of linking the letters to the Sept. 11 attacks.
“There are a lot of people in America that are afraid and understandably so, because bioterrorism has never hit America before, and people are afraid … of the unknown,” Thompson said. “They don’t know about anthrax.”
Such attacks were “unthinkable” here in America at one time, Orient, who is also the executive director for the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, said. “What is unthinkable to us is not necessarily unthinkable to everyone, and the assumption that it is makes a perilous foundation for national military policy,” she added.
Had the attacks against the World Trade Center twin towers or the Pentagon been conducted with small nuclear weapons, Orient said, “many thousands or millions of people in the path of that cloud would have faced a slow, agonizing death over the next few weeks.”
Such deaths are preventable, she maintains, with adequate shielding for a proper amount of time – about two weeks.
“For that reason, the United States once had a civil defense program. It died with John F. Kennedy,” Orient recently wrote in a paper entitled, “A Question After the Attack: Where Are the Shelters?”
“President Reagan tried to revive it to some extent, with Gen. Julius Becton as director of FEMA. His successor, George H.W. Bush, had no interest in it. And Bill Clinton went so far as to abolish the Office of Civil Defense within FEMA,” Dr. Orient wrote.
Now that President George W. Bush has created a new Cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security, will civil defense be revisited – along the lines it was once created or even something less sophisticated?
“The mission of the Office will be to develop and coordinate the implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks,” said a statement by the White House, defining the role of the new agency.
“The Office will coordinate the executive branch’s efforts to detect, prepare for, prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks within the United States,” said the statement, adding that the agency will work with state and local officials to carry out its mission.
Most analysts applauded Bush’s decision to create the new Homeland Security agency. Joe Allbaugh, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has already had meetings with former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, the new chief of Homeland Security.
“Our [Oct. 5] meeting was very productive and positive,” Allbaugh said earlier this month, without providing specific details “We are like-minded in approach and goals. I have worked closely with the governor in the past, and I look forward to working with him in his new role.”
Such vague rhetoric has experts like Orient questioning whether much is really being done to educate the American public about civil defense and to prepare facilities to handle what could potentially be great numbers of victims, as well as survivors.
During the Cold War, civil defense signs like this one dotted cities in the United States. Now most – if not all – CD shelters have been closed or abandoned.
“If a weapon of mass destruction were used in certain other countries, say Russia or China or Switzerland,” Orient wrote, “everyone would head for shelter. All Russians, at least during the Cold War, had required civil defense training throughout their school years and into adulthood.”
“Civil defense is the necessary foundation for all defense. The time to start is now,” Orient said.
Mark Wolfson, a spokesman for FEMA, told WorldNetDaily that his agency, as well as Homeland Security, had plans to address public disaster prepareness.
“I think it’s too soon to say” what specific plans are being discussed, Wolfson said, but “Mr. Allbaugh is scheduled to testify before the Senate on this topic Tuesday (today), so stay tuned.”
In the meantime, Orient recommended some first steps “the government could do immediately” to improve civil defense, “at minimal cost.” They include:
- Encourage privately owned facilities that contract with the government to prepare and stock existing space for fallout shelters (or at least repeal any prohibitions);
- Resume distribution of information on expedient civil defense measures tested at Oak Ridge National Laboratories to state and local emergency workers, emergency broadcast facilities, and interested citizens;
- Stockpile potassium iodide and directions for use to protect the thyroid gland in the event of fallout;
- Stockpile unprocessed grain and beans as an emergency food supply in the event that a year’s crops are contaminated;
- Improve methods of detecting chemical and biological agents; stockpile and disperse antibiotics and antidotes; have instructions for Israeli-style sealed rooms ready for dissemination.