March 20-26, 2003
The Winds of War
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
What will happen in Philly when Baghdad burns.
As the United States marches boldly into war, the country’s mood is ambivalent at best. Thousands of antiwar protesters have taken to the streets to decry what they say is an unjust invasion of a sovereign state, while policy wonks and conservative pundits insist that the nation rallies behind President George W. Bush’s determination to oust a vile dictator. The over-arching local question is, how will the war play in Philadelphia, and are we ready for the possible consequences?
As of Tuesday afternoon, city officials were relying on an emergency plan first created in 1987 and since updated. Of course, the plan has gotten a lot more attention since 9/11 and contains established procedures for responding to a variety of emergency situations, including chemical, biological and nuclear events. In the Emergency Preparedness and Response Plan, which can be found on the city's website, you'll find evacuation procedures, where to go for information and what actions the public should take in the event of an emergency. For instance, the city is urging residents to keep the windows and doors in homes and cars locked, to close all the vents and try to offer neighbors a ride as they're skedaddling out of town. Stay tuned to a TV or radio as much as possible and calmly follow the instructions from the emergency broadcast system. Authorized emergency personnel will be stationed at schools, transportation centers and main roads to provide assistance and police will patrol any evacuated areas for looters and vandals. Apart from the basic stuff in the plan, city officials say, you'll just have to wait for further instructions.
"At the appropriate time, we will share with citizens a more advanced, coordinated plan," says mayoral spokesperson Barbara Grant. "We'll immediately disseminate that plan through the media, and make sure that if there is anything at all the public should know, they get the proper information. Of course, the mayor urges each citizen to be vigilant and on a higher level of personal alert for anything suspicious, but there is no immediate plan to change anything until a conflict actually begins."
Man oâ war: Bush gives Hussein 48 hours to get out of town.
Photo By Michael T. Regan
The official word on war preparations from the Philadelphia Police Department is pretty much the same as the mayor's office.
"We won't do anything different until the invasion starts," says Inspector William Colarulo. "Then there will be an immediate news conference with the mayor and the police commissioner, at which time any changes in the way we conduct business will be laid out for the public. What I can say now is that there is no need for panic at all. The situation has been planned for and the safety of the public is always our primary concern. We will respond appropriately."
At the state level, Tuesday afternoon Gov. Ed Rendell elevated Pennsylvania's Homeland Security threat level to orange, or high-risk, while urging citizens to remain calm but vigilant.
"Pennsylvanians should continue to go about their normal lives," Rendell said. "At code orange, we're asking everyone to be aware of what is going on in their community. Rest assured that our mission to protect the safety and security of all Pennsylvanians has not, and will not, change."
Rendell said that his office and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency will work with PA Homeland Security and other state agencies to monitor conditions throughout the commonwealth for as long as necessary.
Transportation officials also say they're prepared to protect and serve, and keep people moving.
"We're as ready as we can be," says Amtrak spokesman Dan Stessel. "Basically, [what we do] depends on the Homeland Security advisory system. We implement a greater police presence when we go to code orange. If we go to [code] red, we'll add even more police officers and canine patrols."
Each day, Amtrak operates 265 trains that cover 22,000 route miles. Its official website states that "Amtrak trains operate every minute of the entire year." Stessel says that since 9/11, several new policies have been employed to thwart terrorist activity throughout the expansive nationwide system. Among these are the requirement of photo identification for purchasing tickets and checking baggage; random screening of checked bags, both electronically and with the use of dogs; and an increase in uniformed and plainclothes police officers, both on and off the trains.
"We have a number of other methods we've been working on as well," Stessel says, "but I can't discuss them [because] that might compromise the effectiveness of a security effort."
Richard Maloney, director of public affairs for SEPTA, says that his agency will also follow the lead of the Homeland Security Department (HSD).
Maloney says that SEPTA's 250-person police force is at the ready, "making sure our 2,200-square-mile, five-county system is secure." Like Stessel, Maloney says that since 9/11, his agency has been working with the federal government and local law enforcement agencies to conduct system-wide security reviews to determine what areas might be vulnerable. However, like Stessel, he says divulging details would compromise the agency's efforts.
On Tuesday, following the HSD's upgrade to a code-orange alert, SEPTA General Manager Faye Moore issued a one-page response stating that the transit police were increasing security patrols.
"To further reassure its customers of security on the SEPTA system," it reads, "officers of the SEPTA Transit Police Department will be placed on 12-hour shifts for an indefinite period of time."
However, an orange-line token-booth cashier who asked to remain anonymous says that to date, SEPTA personnel have not been provided with training on what to do in the event of massive subterranean evacuations, nor have they been told how to handle hazardous materials, such as biological or chemical agents. "We are definitely not ready for any true emergencies," he says.
At Philadelphia International Airport, Mark Pesce, director of public affairs, says that his agency has not yet received notification from the Transportation Security Administration (the federal agency that oversees security policies for airports throughout the country) directing it to increase safekeeping measures. "So far," Pesce says, "we haven't been advised to change anything that we're already doing." Pesce, however, would not expound on what the airport has thus far implemented.
Of major concern is what happens to the more than 211,000 Philadelphia public-school students if a state of emergency is declared. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, school children were let out of classes early but parents weren't notified, resulting in confusion. This time, school administrators say, they're ready.
Dexter Green, chief safety executive for the School District of Philadelphia, says that city schools are relatively well-prepared for any kind of emergency. "Since October 2002, we have been running sheltering-in-place and evacuation drills in schools throughout the city," Green says. He explains that unlike the air-raid drills of years ago, the sheltering-in-place drills require students and school personnel to stay put until further instructions are available. He says that under emergency conditions, all doors and windows will be locked, no one will be allowed to enter or leave the building and emergency placards will be prominently displayed in all windows. "For lack of a better term," Green says, "the building will be on lockdown." Green also explains that unlike 9/11, when thousands of city school children were dismissed early in the day, many with nowhere to go, the district is planning to implement an autodial system, whereby parents will be asked to provide emergency contact numbers so they can be notified of emergencies prior to any dismissals.
"[School District CEO] Paul Vallas is sending a letter to parents to explain what the district is doing and what the district is expecting from parents and students," Green says. "We've been working with the Archdiocese, SEPTA, the fire department, the police department and the charter schools to make sure our plans will work. Every day we look to see if we can improve what we've put in place already."
Since 9/11, city hospitals have also been focused on honing emergency procedures. Officials say they have been doubling their efforts to combat the possible exposure of hazardous toxins that could affect area residents.
Administrators at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital say plans have long been in place to address the prospect of biochemical infection.
"Thomas Jefferson has been running preparedness alerts dealing with anthrax, dirty nukes and sarin, as well as heightening lockdown procedures for possible chemical/biological contaminations," says Dr. Edward Jasper, emergency medicine physician and co-chair of Thomas Jefferson Emergency Preparedness Committee.
Tenet Health Systems, a corporation overseeing 114 acute care facilities in 16 states, is affiliated with eight hospitals in the Philadelphia region, including Graduate Hospital and Hahnemann University Hospital. Since 9/11, the agency has been enacting new preventive measures to address potential threats. "We have broadened the scope of our emergency preparedness policies, as well as [our understanding] of the severity of the emergencies we are prepared for," says Eryn Dobeck, Tenet manager of communications.
"[Our] new policies are related to antibiotic stockpiling, decontamination equipment, hazardous materials training and contamination detection and prevention," she says. Dolbeck adds that the Tenet-affiliated hospitals have been planning for the prospect of biochemical threats by working with other hospitals and outside agencies.
Last year, Tenet, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, area hospitals and Philadelphia emergency personnel conducted a series of drills to proactively respond to potential biochemical terrorist attacks. The outcome, Dolbeck says, has assured officials at the hospital corporation that they are equipped for the most deadly of outcomes.
Dr. Patrick J. Brennan, chief of health care quality and patient safety for University of Pennsylvania Health System, says that the facility is prepared for any kind of airborne or viral attack.
"We're expected to be prepared; it's our job to deal with these kinds of things," Brennan says. "But the question is how big is the attack and how extensive are our resources? If it's big enough, we'll need additional resources from other places. Our job is to bridge the gap from when the attack starts to when we can get those other resources. At that point, we're totally on our own. Right now, though, we'll sit and wait and prepare as best we can."
And what about the thousands upon thousands of Philadelphians who are dead set against the war? Even if conflict with Iraq is inevitable, war protesters vow to continue their demonstrations for as long as it takes. This morning (Thu., March 20) the Brandywine Peace Community is scheduled to engage in a sit-in demonstration, blockading the entrance to the Federal Building in Center City. On Saturday, Ladyfest Philly will feature a protest workshop and on Sunday, an antiwar march from the Art Museum steps to City Hall.
"We've tried to publicize different antiwar events going on in Philadelphia so people coming to town for Ladyfest can participate," says Ladyfest collective member Julie Gerstein. "More than that, I think that the very nature of what we're doing by holding this festival and raising awareness about arts and activists in the community will be very important in the current geo-political climate."
This past Monday afternoon, more than 100 antiwar protesters blocked traffic at 15th and Market, shouted anti-Bush slogans into a bullhorn and drew the wrath of more than a few passersby who answered with the middle-fingered salute or angry words. Bush supporter P. Gil Hendrickson was walking past when he got into a heated exchange with antiwar protester Lynze Morris.
"One American life is worth any 3,000 Afghanis or Iraqis!" Hendrickson shouted angrily at one point. "How can you put Americans on the same level as foreigners?"
That sentiment scares the bejeebers out of Philadelphia's Islamic and Arab communities, who worry about their personal safety and liberty once the bombs start dropping.
With the FBI planning to interview more than 10,000 Iraqi nationals in the United States, local Arab-American leaders are scrambling to prepare the estimated 200 Philadelphia-area residents they believe will be questioned. Marwan Kreidie, who heads the Philadelphia Arab-American Association, says that while he does not think the interviews are necessary, his group is cooperating with the FBI in the hopes that they can help safeguard the rights of those who are questioned.
"I'm against all this random questioning, but if it's going to happen we're going to do it as best as possible," he says. Kreidie says that the FBI will not be checking the immigration status of the individuals they question and interviewees will be allowed to have attorneys present. Kreidie says he has made arrangements with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has agreed to provide legal counsel to those who request it.
"We take the position that the government ought to be using its limited resources to focus in on individuals whom they have reason to believe have committed crimes or are about to commit crimes," says ACLU Legal Director Stefan Presser. "Simply to target a whole nation's people with suspicion is a poor use of resources and smacks of discrimination. We've made a commitment to secure counsel for any Iraqi that is contacted by the FBI and wishes to have legal assistance."
At the national level, the Council on American-Islamic Relations is taking a more combative stance on the questioning of Iraqi nationals. "Our position has always been that you don't interview people based on their race, ethnicity or religion," says spokesman Ibrahim Hooper from the organization's Washington, D.C., headquarters. The government should "interview people based on probable cause that they have some info that will help in national security, or that they have engaged in some kind of wrongdoing."
While Captain William Fisher of the Philadelphia Police Department civil affairs unit admits that Arab-American community leaders are "probably more concerned than I am" about the potential for a rise in such crimes, he is reassuring Arabs in Philadelphia that the department won't "look into people's immigration status when they ask for police services." The police are concerned that illegal immigrants might not report hate crimes for fear of being deported. As always, Fisher says, "hate crimes will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
By all accounts, Philadelphia was not particularly hard hit by bias incidents in the wake of 9/11, but with an imminent war in Iraq many are worried about an up-tick in hate crimes. Barry Morrison, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, says, "What happened here [after 9/11] was relatively insignificant compared with other parts of the country. We would like to believe that's what will occur in the wake of another challenge to our country or a military conflict that appears to be hours away."