By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
Grand jurors also complained that the IBM mainframe brain of the city's computer system is located in a highly vulnerable downtown site. If it is taken out, many essential services would be paralyzed. Moreover, the city's 90-year-old network of water pipes feeding fire hydrants is decaying, leaky, and unreliable.
Although many San Francisco emergency officials say the grand jury's findings are accurate, then-Mayor Brown dismissed them as "preposterous." And in a lengthy written reply to the grand jury report, former emergency services chief Canton agreed with some findings, disagreed with others, and said he was not going to do anything about the majority of the conclusions since his office did not possess the power to compel city officials to make emergency plans or work with each other on a common goal of preparedness.
Henry Chase, an infrastructure expert for the Homeland Defense Journal, pointed out in an October article that the burden of hardening what the government terms "critical infrastructure" falls on the private companies that own most of it. These firms are not eager to spend millions of dollars setting up germ and radiation detectors, reinforcing walls and floors, installing minicams with face-recognizing biometric software, hiring more security guards, and inspecting the contents of the millions of truck-size shipping containers that regularly cross U.S. borders.
Chase says private companies are asking for government subsidies and tax breaks as a condition of improving their own security. Many of them, he says, are reluctant to share information with government agencies because "Industry [is] worried that the information being shared might be used to launch criminal investigations rather than protect the infrastructure."
Local government agencies are asking the feds for money, too. BART and Muni are in line for $4.5 million in federal grants to build barricades and install surveillance cameras, motion detectors, thermal imaging devices, and chemical/ radiological sensors -- plus buy software to tie the machines together. Commercial ferry and shipping companies at the Port of San Francisco were awarded $1.2 million by the feds this year to install surveillance systems.
When all is said and done, though, it takes a lot of expertise and money to build, transport, and set off CBRN weapons capable of killing thousands of people. On the other hand, conventional explosives can cause plenty of damage. Some police, fire, and emergency response officials say they are more worried about car and truck bombs than weapons of mass destruction.
"The general feeling," says Police Chief Fagan, "is that if terrorists had a nuclear bomb or a dirty bomb, it would have been used by now. If the public knew what was being done to disrupt cells, they would sleep better at night."
Civil grand juror Singer disagrees. "I learned enough to be scared," she says. "An airplane full of bad stuff downtown would be really bad."
Singer says San Francisco is reasonably ready for "normal" disasters such as minor explosions. But she adds that a myth of preparedness has arisen here since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Singer and Linehan both point out that the city's response to Loma Prieta was rife with problems, including poor radio communications, insufficient water for firefighting, failure to find enough food and shelter for displaced people, and limited search-and-rescue ability. Dozens of people died horrible, lingering deaths in the rubble of the Cypress Freeway, for instance, because nobody in the Bay Area had the expertise and equipment to dig them out.
Nearly 15 years later, San Francisco remains incapable of launching heavy search-and-rescue missions on collapsed buildings, bridges, or freeway overpasses.
Phil Chin, head of disaster planning for the Department of Public Works, is in charge of getting ready for heavy search-and-rescue operations, demolishing buildings contaminated by a weapon of mass destruction, clearing streets so emergency vehicles can move about, barricading radioactive or contaminated sections of the city, and removing hazardous materials and infectious debris. He is blunt about the city's lack of readiness in these areas.
"We are not currently prepared to operate in [a CBRN] environment," he says. "We need to teach folks to use protective equipment [such as Level A suits]. It is expensive to train people and equip them and recertify them annually. Ten years ago, we had some capability, but it was not deemed cost effective and was cut out in a budget crunch."
Chin hopes to receive federal grants to buy two Unimog trucks, the Swiss army knives of emergency response. The $400,000, four-wheel-drive vehicles can function like a bulldozer, a crane, or a debris scooper. Still, Chin says, the Unimogs "are not as good as any single piece of equipment, like a bulldozer, [cutting] torch, crane, lift beams. We can economize by spending on two of those [vehicles], instead of more equipment."
How would city officials cope with all the contaminated corpses that could result from a CBRN attack? Chin says they hope not to have to bulldoze bodies into pits, as was done with many victims of the recent Iranian earthquake. "We may not approach it that way," he says. "As much as possible, those in charge want to salvage remains in a certain manner. It's a cultural thing."