Peoria Journal Star

February 15, 2003

Capital on edge, but life goes on
Signs of increased security are everywhere in Washington, D.C.

By DORI MEINERT
of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Anti-aircraft missiles are positioned within view of the Washington monuments. Military helicopters patrol overhead. Metro subway signs flash "security alert" as commuters scurry to their downtown offices.

On Capitol Hill, the Capitol Police are carrying MP-5 machine guns and G-36 assault rifles and placed in visible locations such as intersections and building rooftops.

On Friday, even Valentine's Day flower deliveries to the Capitol and adjacent office buildings were prohibited.

It's been almost a week since the nation went on "orange alert," the second highest security alert. And, with Washington and New York said to be the top targets of a potential terrorist attack, even romance had to give way to security and anxiety.

Washington is "one of the most dangerous places in America to be here at this moment," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told a group of constituents at a Thursday morning breakfast meeting.

The controlled panic felt by Washington-area residents was evident in the rush on home improvement stores earlier this week to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting. CVS stores throughout the region are sold out of potassium iodide pills, which are supposed to protect a person's thyroid gland in case of radiological attack. Gas mask suppliers stopped answering their phones, unable to keep up with demand.

Some parents in suburban Virginia grew more nervous this week when their school-aged children brought home copies of "Your Guide to Emergency Preparedness," a long-planned booklet published by a regional commission. Some school districts this year have conducted lockdown drills to prepare for possible chemical attacks - reminiscent of the "duck-and-cover" Cold War exercises in the 1950s.

The number of hits on the American Red Cross Web site increased 300 percent in the last couple of days, said Jan Lane, a former Peoria resident who now is the Red Cross vice president of government affairs.

"I think things are relatively calm here. They're actually focused on preparedness and what they do now might prepare them for anything from snow storms ... to potential terrorist attacks," she said.

Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said he was purposely keeping his 1,500 officers in visible positions, in intersections and on rooftops with full weaponry, to scare off terrorists who may have scouted their earlier routines.

"We're in a position to handle the terrorist. But I think we all have to figure out how to handle terror," said Gainer, formerly head of the Illinois State Police.

At a briefing Thursday, lawmakers were told to remove their vanity license plates from their vehicles so they wouldn't call attention to themselves as members of Congress and to vary their routes to work or jogging paths.

"I think there are going to be other attacks in the United States. I think that Washington, D.C. is the number one target ... but we can't stop living our lives. I have a job to do," said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill. (Peoria), who chairs a House Intelligence subcommittee on terrorism. LaHood returned to Illinois Friday to begin a week-long congressional recess.

While Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, caused a stir when she said she had told her daughter to stay out of New York's subways, LaHood said he and his family haven't changed their personal lifestyle.

"My son uses the D.C. Metro. My wife walks to work every day in D.C. I haven't taken the plates off my car in D.C.," LaHood said. "I've not bought one roll of duct tape."

However, LaHood and his staff have prepared an emergency evacuation plan and they've been issued "quick escape hoods," or disposable gas masks, to help ensure a safe departure.

LaHood's chief of staff, Diane Liesman, suggested to staff in an e-mail Thursday night that they keep some food in the office. Liesman said she keeps an emergency bag for herself at the office that includes a sweater and comfortable boots, a battery-operated radio and snack bars. She also has kept a similar bag in her car ever since the sniper shootings last fall when police barricades frequently tied up traffic for hours.

Durbin's press secretary, Joe Shoemaker, said he's done nothing to prepare at home.

"With two kids under 1 year old, we could survive off strained peas for quite some time," Shoemaker said. "I'm not sure all that duct tape and plastic sheeting would make me feel better at night."

Earlier in the week, Illinois Farm Bureau's Chuck Spencer reviewed the heightened alert status for the 14 agricultural leaders he brought here to meet with Illinois lawmakers. He briefed them on emergency evacuation measures they should take if there were an attack on the city.

On the Metro, subway riders rode in unusually hushed cars eyeing other passengers suspiciously as Metro police and bomb-sniffing dogs made their presence felt. "This is freaky," one woman whispered.

A threatening pamphlet shoved under the doors of news bureaus in the National Press Building prompted an FBI agent to go door-to-door searching for witnesses.

By Friday, Washingtonians had an additional concern. Weather forecasters are predicting up to eight inches of snow this weekend. Their new supplies of duct tape worthless against this foe, residents headed back to the stores, this time for de-icer, snow shovels, bread and milk to get them through a wintry weekend.