Past crises, public-private cooperation among keys to readiness
By Mike Fish
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- As any terrorism expert will tell you, no city is immune from risk. Nor is any city fully prepared to handle the fallout from a potentially ravaging terrorist deed, such as a biological or chemical attack.
But some cities are arguably more prepared than others -- such as New York.
A CNN.com analysis of the country's 30 largest cities judged New York, having earlier withstood attacks on the World Trade Center, the most prepared to deal with major catastrophes.
New York averaged the highest score in four categories ranked by a panel of six law enforcement, security/terrorism and emergency management experts who evaluated the cities. Based on the experts' rankings, the cities were judged overall as being: Most Prepared; Well Prepared; Prepared or Less Prepared.
"We plan for numerous type incidents, from biological to chemical to power outages, coastal storms, hurricanes, power outages in hospitals," said Frank McCarton, deputy commissioner of the New York Office of Emergency Management. "And on 9/11, I believe all that planning and all that knowledge came together. We had water main breaks. We had power failures. We had two 100-plus story buildings collapse.
"We have probably the most comprehensive planning of any city. Is there work to be done? Yeah, there is always work to be done.''
The lone knock against New York from the CNN.com analysis came in the transportation category, where experts cited the potential for gridlock -- a factor in getting responders to the scene as well as transporting the injured and ill to medical facilities.
Several other large cities also didn't fare well under transportation -- notably Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit. They were not as strong as New York in the other categories and, along with Las Vegas, Milwaukee and New Orleans, were found less prepared by the panel than other large cites. In recent months, these and other cities have taken steps to improve their preparedness.
"In my opinion, the two cities that could handle it alone, without asking or needing immediate outside resources, would be New York and Los Angeles," said Dr. Lew Stringer, medical director of the Special Operations Response Team, a medical response unit for the U.S. Public Health Service that works with local, state and federal governments. "That's because of their surge capabilities. In a large bioterrorism event, such as smallpox, everybody is going to need outside help."
Just in the number of full-time police officers, alone, New York has an advantage with a staggering 40,000 police officers, or 49.7 per 10,000 residents, second only to Washington, D.C. (63.4 per 10,000). New York also fared well due to a largely city-run hospital system that provides a medical infrastructure that is easier to access than those in cities that rely heavily on private sector hospital care. The experts assisting in the CNN.com analysis ranked New York first in the capability of the city's emergency management agency to respond to a crisis.
"Although New York was the best target because it represents to (Osama) bin Laden all the things that are wrong with the West, it is also better equipped to handle something like that," offered Charles Stone, formerly head of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's anti-terrorism unit. "The police and fire departments took a tremendous hit, but they were still able to function and just didn't collapse.
Readiness remains an elusive measure
The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon touched off a flurry of inspection and preparedness exercises across the country, along with unprecedented spending by cities to ensure critical infrastructure and the public are protected from terrorist attack.
According to a National League of Cities survey, 83 percent of cities with a population of more than 100,000 have terrorism prevention and response plans. Of those, 66 percent intend to reassess their plans in light of September 11.
Still, it's difficult to determine how well a city is prepared for disaster. Some information that would be valuable in gauging cities' preparedness, such as details about pharmaceutical stockpiles, is appropriately guarded. This series relied on public information and the knowledge of the experts who assisted CNN.com to make its assessments.
While analysts say cities are better prepared than they were before September 11, the CNN.com panel found that there remains room for significant improvement in public health, emergency response, evacuation planning and inter-agency communication. True preparedness, the experts agree, is best achieved where the local, state and federal governments -- as well as members of the private sector -- work as partners.
Another challenge cities face in preparing for emergencies is the availability of resources.
The CDC, for example, awarded $120 million to states during the past two years to upgrade public health's capacity to respond to bioterrorism. But only four cities received separate grants, including New York ($1.14 million), Chicago ($902,089), Los Angeles ($850,275) and Washington, D.C. ($570,317) -- all which were ranked as prepared or better in the CNN.com analysis.
During the past two years the same Big Four rank among 11 jurisdictions that the U.S. Justice Department provided with the latest high-tech communications system, allowing emergency response teams to better communicate at disaster scenes.
On the other end of the spectrum, Las Vegas and New Orleans are located in states that do not employ a public health veterinarian. A public health veterinarian is important for early detection of a biological attack, medical officials say. Likewise, neither city currently has a CDC-sponsored epidemic intelligence officer or "disease detective" to help prevent or investigate the use of any biological weapons.
Both highly visited tourist centers cities were found less prepared by the CNN.com panel.
The challenge posed for planners, said Peter Beering, coordinator of Indianapolis Terrorism Preparedness and an instructor in a federal program training program, is facing many factors outside their control, such as surprise; and the fact that reaching proper preparedness is costly and takes time and intensive, coordinated training.
Some cities benefit from real-life crises
The book on how to prevent and respond to terror attacks is being written as events unfold, but communities that routinely host major events or traditionally face natural disasters, such as Florida and California cities, tend to be better prepared.
Although mega-cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Washington, are among the most vulnerable, they often have had real-life crises that have forced them to test communication systems and the chain of command while witnessing the strain on local public health facilities and transportation networks.
In Miami, the hurricane season is a test. And in Indianapolis, the area's various agencies plan each year for the hundreds of thousands of fans who flock to the city for the Indy 500 and other big auto races.
"Miami is very vulnerable to some kinds of natural disasters, but because they routinely have hurricanes they have a number of things already figured out," Beering said. "They've got evacuation routes figured out. They've got communications figured out and the phone poles are made of re-enforced concrete. They don't blow over in the wind. They have very tight building codes.
"I believe Indianapolis is in better shape, not because we had exercises, but because we have three (auto) races a year that put all the players in the same environment with a fairly obvious and identifiable collection of risks."
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the experts agree, have taught planners and the public the need to be ready for the unexpected. They have also given preparedness a significantly higher profile as security officials in federal, state and local governments assess how best to protect our cities.
"September 11 changed everything," said Bob Andrews, emergency management director for the greater Las Vegas area and president of the International Association of Emergency Managers. "And the truth of the matter is there is no jurisdiction on planet Earth that is adequately prepared to handle the wide range of situations that could occur.
"We have a lot of work to do, but the work has begun."
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