Gimme Shelter

With America on 'Orange Alert,' some seek protection with plastic and duct tape. Others think they give a false sense of security

February 15, 2003|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

The man was clearly out of his element. He wandered the store aisles, unsure where to find what he was looking for, and even more unsure how his wife was going to react when he brought it all home three days before Valentine's Day.

Shyly, he asked another customer for advice, made his choices and, after a final check of his handwritten list, brought his items - not a box of chocolates among them - to the Home Depot checkout counter:

Duct tape

Plastic sheeting

Caulk

Batteries

Then he headed home to the wife and kids in Arbutus.

Mark Kinzie, software engineer, had his war supplies.

On Monday, the federal government for the first time advised citizens to take precautions in their homes against terrorist attacks; since then - though far from unanimously - Americans have reacted, laying in food, water and first-aid supplies.

By Wednesday - with the government's terrorism alert level raised to orange, or "high," with the release of a new Osama bin Laden audiotape, and with the first direct call for Americans to arm themselves with plastic, duct tape, water and more - citizens like Kinzie had decided it was time to be, if not scared, then at least prepared. Brisk, though not frenzied, sales had some stores running out of duct tape and water.

By yesterday, with snowstorms approaching, it appeared that a good hunk of the Northeast was preparing to spend the weekend cocooning - figuratively, if not literally - amid predictions of heavy accumulations of snow, sleet, ice and a slight chance of terrorists.

While the emergency preparedness advice has been available on government Web sites since 9/11, and even before, more people appeared to be taking it seriously after Monday's briefing by top officials, particularly those in the New York and Washington areas, pinpointed by the government as likely targets.

Within one hour Tuesday night at the Home Depot on Washington Avenue, five customers were seen buying duct tape and plastic - which the government recommends be used to cover windows and doorways in the event of an attack, theoretically to keep out chemical and biological agents. "I've heard about all these things before," said Kinzie, 42, "but now they're making it seem a little more serious, in the sense that it's gotten a little more specific."

At the same time, though, other Americans had little reaction to the warnings, and many were still trying to decipher the line between over-reacting and under-reacting. Husbands and wives debated what to do in their homes. Scientists argued over how effective plastic and duct tape would be. And government officials seemed to be saying, on one hand, to go ahead with travel plans and life as usual; on the other, to be prepared to seal yourself into a plastic room at a moment's notice.

Kinzie sifted through the information as best he could, but there were still more questions than answers.

Which room should he pick as his family's "safe room?" Wouldn't the bathroom - if they had to spend three days there - make the most sense? Once it was sealed, would he, his wife and children, aged 6 and 3, have enough oxygen to last that long? How would they know when it was safe to come out?

Kinzie and his wife had not discussed preparations much, but she seemed a little less keen on taking them. On Tuesday, he had e-mailed her the government's recommendations.

"That was just to warm her up to the idea, then I'm just going to come home with stuff tonight," Kinzie, who works at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, said Tuesday.

He hoped to have things figured out - including which room should serve as shelter - by the weekend. For now though, he was headed home with his duct tape, a product invented, aptly enough, during wartime. It was developed during World War II - originally in Army green - to keep moisture out of ammunition boxes.

Now, in addition to all its other uses, the sticky silver tape is quickly becoming a symbol - albeit a less than reassuring one - of modern day civil defense.

For every Mark Kinzie, there is probably a Bill Weker.

Weker, 33, doesn't run to the store for bread, milk and eggs with every prediction of snow. Nor does he plan to have plastic on hand to cover his windows.

In fact, Weker plans to take no steps at his home in Federal Hill, though at his wife's insistence he did pick up a few bottles of water. "It's not like she's controlling, but she likes to feel in control of situations," he said on his lunch break Thursday. He sees it differently.

"It's tough to prepare when you don't know what's going to happen," he said. "And I don't think you can live your life in fear something might happen."

"By the time you got all the plastic up, it would be too late," said Laurie Mitchell, one of his co-workers. "Besides, who says it's going to happen while we're all at home?"

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