Hoover Dam still locked down

Post-Sept. 11 security tighter, tours altered to thwart terrorism

March 25, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BOULDER CITY, Nev. - Some of the most public reminders of Sept. 11 are beginning to disappear. The Air Force is scaling back its 24-hour patrols over New York. A full schedule of flights will resume next month at Reagan National Airport, not far from the Pentagon. The White House has been reopened to the public.

But here at Hoover Dam, life may never return to normal. The new police checkpoints are expected to be permanent. So is the ban on trucks, issued for fear that terrorists could drive explosives onto the dam and blow it up. And the "hard-hat" tours - long a not-to-miss highlight of any visit to this American landmark - have been canceled.

Hoover and other major dams, along with nuclear power plants, are among sites where, authorities say, a terrorist act could be so catastrophic that the new security steps should remain in place. Officials regard Hoover as an especially inviting target because a devastating attack on it could not only damage a symbol of American engineering ingenuity but also wreak havoc on parts of the Southwest.

"Hoover Dam is an American icon, and for years we showed it to people," said Bob Walsh of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the dam. "This is a magnificent structure, but it just can't be as open anymore. People might be disappointed, but I'm sure they'll understand if we can't do it the way we used to."

A major attack on the dam, officials warn, would threaten to unleash a torrent of water that could destroy cities for hundreds of miles, disrupt power to Las Vegas and other area cities and weaken the region's economy for years.

Sept. 11 left its deepest scars, of course, in Manhattan, where thousands were killed, a skyline was altered forever and grief and anxiety remain enmeshed in the collective mood. But here, too, in a peaceful canyon far from Washington and New York, a visitor is reminded of how the nation was transformed.

Generations of Americans have visited this manmade wonder along the Colorado River where Arizona meets Nevada. They have flocked to the tours, in which people explored the insides of the dam. At the river's edge, they could also take a stunning look up at the structure. Those tours have been scrapped out of concern that would-be terrorists could learn too much.

Like the approximately 1 million people who have visited it each year, Edward Stanley of Reisterstown made the dam a stop on a Western vacation this month. He said he was disappointed that the tour his sister-in-law had raved about was no longer offered.

"I guess I could see this being a top target," Stanley said. "I guess we were really spoiled, since there hadn't been restrictions like this on American citizens. We just took it all for granted."

After Sept. 11, President Bush warned Americans to brace for possible further acts of terror. He created an Office of Homeland Security and allocated $37 billion to homeland defense in his budget this year. Combined, the states expect to spend up to $10 billion on homeland security in the first year after the attacks.

But officials say they recognize that every conceivable target cannot be protected. So they have begun to set priorities, focusing on where they think an attack could have the direst consequences and where they believe they can make a terrorist act less likely.

In few ways do the security steps seriously impede the lives of U.S. citizens, who for the most part have returned to routines - dining out, vacationing, attending sporting events in crowded arenas. Even the tighter security in airport terminals has become less of a hassle.

But as the nation inches back to normality, Americans here and there will continue to face unexpected reminders of the terrorist attacks. A post-Sept. 11 visit to Hoover Dam - which opened to public tours in 1937 - is one such experience.

Visitors are still offered a limited tour, taken to an outdoor overlook above the dam and into a room where power is generated. But with the broader tours canceled, tourists spend more time away from the dam itself - at an exhibit gallery in the visitor center, for example, or viewing a film about the dam's construction during the Depression.

Apologetically, the Bureau of Reclamation says security requirements have forced changes, but "we think you will find this new, leisurely way of discovering the dam to be educational, informative and a pleasant way to enjoy this national landmark."

Approaching the dam on a winding road, visitors must pass through the police checkpoints. The experience lends the sense that you are passing through customs into another country.

Officers standing guard have not caught any suspected terrorists, dam officials say, though they have barred an escaping bank robber and a woman who had shoplifted from entering the road that crosses the dam.

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