Air out fallout shelter, tape up the safe room

Alert: Marylanders take assorted precautions in response to an elevated, but unspecified, terrorist threat.

February 14, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Customers packed into Courtland Hearth and Hardware in Bel Air yesterday, buying duct tape and plastic sheeting in bulk. Synagogues beefed up security, mindful of tonight's Sabbath services. And nine students from North County High School in Anne Arundel County were grounded, their trip to London canceled.

With Osama bin Laden resurfacing on audiotape and a war with Iraq looming, many Baltimore-area residents have been adjusting their routines in response to the government's "orange" alert for increased - but unspecified - terrorist threats.

At the Maryland Emergency Management Agency in Reisterstown, public information officer Quentin Banks is being deluged with calls. Many residents are asking about fallout shelters - those underground rooms with impenetrable walls that haven't been a consideration since the 1960s - and about building a "safe room," as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommends.

Although hardware stores report unprecedented demand for duct tape and plastic sheeting, two of the main ingredients for a safe room, Banks says that focus has sent people scurrying in the wrong direction.

Instead of simply covering windows, residents should stock up on food and other provisions, stay inside, watch local television stations for updates and use common sense.

"Folks seem to be more concerned with the duct tape than with the basic issues of emergency preparedness," he said. "A safe room is one aspect of it, but let's start with the basics. We're not recommending people run out and buy gas masks."

Police around the state are also gearing up in response to the warnings.

In Annapolis, Department of General Services police officers guarding the exterior of the State House began carrying shotguns yesterday. Officers are scrutinizing ID badges at state office buildings in Annapolis and Baltimore.

Even malls have beefed up security; the Rouse Co., which operates several in the area, has added security officers and might draw on off-duty police.

Maryland State Police commanders stationed troopers and erected barricades to limit access to barracks yesterday.

"I have a feeling this is how things are going to be for a while," said Sgt. Thornnie Rouse, a state police spokesman. "People are going to have to get used to it. It's been this way in some countries for years."

Baltimore County police, meanwhile, were deploying officers to be much more visible near potential targets, including synagogues and churches.

Synagogues and other Jewish institutions have been increasingly wary since a 1999 shooting wounded five people at a Jewish community center's preschool in Los Angeles. Now, local rabbis say they're being cautious but not panicking.

At Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Pikesville, which is usually an open campus, one entrance has been closed and the other has an attendant to screen visitors. "The mood on campus is always we pray to God and hope for the best," said Rabbi Herman N. Neuberger, Ner Israel president.

"There's a little more concern expressed because of the manner in which the federal government has issued warnings," said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "Never before has there been talk of buying duct tape."

But duct tape does seem to be the material of choice for protection against a chemical or biological attack - however limited its effectiveness.

Home Depot spokesman Shelley Schumaker said the retailer is running out of the tape and plastic sheeting in Northeast stores: "We have orders out, and we're transferring product from areas of the country not experiencing as great a demand."

At Courtland Hearth and Hardware, manager Julian Mangum said customers are buying in quantity - two or three rolls of sheeting and tape apiece. "We're probably stocking the shelves three or four times a day, where those items usually stock every day or two."

At the Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse in Timonium yesterday, Gini Pielke's shopping list included gas masks, plastic sheeting and batteries.

"I'm just being practical, I'm not panicking," said Pielke, who lives in Towson. "I'm not really sure how to use these (gas masks), but my husband will know."

Worried about the water supply, Mari Salafia of Lutherville was shopping at Home Depot in Perring Plaza yesterday afternoon.

"I have some extra water because I have studied chemical threats and the water supply is what concerns me," she said. "Tainting the water is so easy to do."

Lynette Lee, who manages the Estee Lauder counter at Hecht's at the Mall in Columbia, was buying - but not duct tape. She has reacted to the terror warnings by "spending more money."

"You can't take it with you," she said. "I'll take any excuse to buy shoes. It calms me down."

Schools in several counties were reviewing their emergency plans and sending letters to parents about school procedures. Some were dealing with last-minute trip cancellations.

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