By Chris Roberts
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
By Mike Billings
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
Since the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office isn't capable of handling more than a few dozen radioactive or otherwise tainted corpses, the city probably would call on the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, which dispatches morticians to decontaminate, bag, and bury casualties of weapons of mass destruction.
DMORT workers would bring in their own Level A suits, bleach, refrigerated storage units, embalming materials, and 55-gallon drums for storing dead pets. But a 35-member DMORT team can only bag about eight human corpses an hour, according to the Army's Guidelines for Mass Fatality Management During Terrorist Incidents Involving Chemical Agents. Although the Army is expanding the number of teams, it has determined that the United States is "unprepared to manage catastrophic numbers of fatalities at the local and regional level."
This means that after a particularly horrible disaster, local officials might have to use Unimogs to plow contaminated and rotting bodies into mass graves, perhaps in Golden Gate Park.
Not everybody perishes in a disaster, of course, and displaced survivors must be looked after. City officials expect up to 40,000 people to be left homeless by a major earthquake. But a radioactive plume blowing across a city of about 776,000 could drive many times that number of people out of their homes and apartments.
The grand jury determined that the city is capable of sheltering and feeding only about 1,500 displaced people -- and then only for 48 hours. According to the city's current emergency plan, cots and blankets will arrive through the good graces of the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Displaced people will be housed in large halls and public schools. And food will be commandeered from restaurants and supermarkets, although supplies will be limited.
In his reply to the grand jury, Canton explained, "In emergency response, feeding is not considered an immediate need. ... [P]eople can survive without food for a considerable period of time."
In the mid-1990s, the city invested $166 million in a state-of-the-art emergency communications center on Turk Street. Officials concede, however, that the facility would have serious problems in an emergency. For example, the central 911 radio system cannot talk directly to Muni drivers, BART police, or airport officials. Nor can it penetrate numerous "dead zones" between hills or the interiors of commercial high-rises and some public buildings, such as the Hall of Justice. It also can't reach underground basements and garages, which in a disaster might contain many injured and trapped people requiring rescue.
Canton says these electronic gaps can be filled by issuing portable radios to all first responders, but admits he had only "a small cache" of them.
Linehan says the emergency communication network is as likely to fail here as it did in New York after the World Trade Center attack. A helicopter full of communications gear might help first responders talk to one another and see the big picture, he says.
But San Francisco has no municipal chopper. "After we had a helicopter crash in January 2000, we sold four of our helicopters for [use as] crop-dusters, and the other two for scrap," says Linehan. "There are no plans to acquire a new one."
Grand jurors were particularly troubled by the lack of a viable backup for the 911 system should its transmission towers on Twin Peaks be destroyed, or if the Turk Street center itself was bombed or contaminated. Canton admits that the existing backup at Northern Police Station is not capable of handling the communications load of a disaster. But he says the problem was scheduled to be studied, and if things get really tough, the city can mobilize ham radio operators and "the Zeitgeist crew" -- bicycle messengers who hang out at the Zeitgeist bar on Valencia Street.
"We can't let high-tech take over," Canton says, smiling.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has budgeted $23 billion for combating domestic terrorism in 2004. About $3.4 billion of that is earmarked for local first responders. This year and next, San Francisco will pull down about $60 million in federal anti-terrorism funds.
City Hall officials are asking the feds for about $30 million this year to fix five of 35 local "vulnerabilities." A heavily censored copy of the city's grant application obtained by SF Weekly bore a lengthy wish list of anti-terror equipment, including:
chemical agent detection paper, $60 a roll
cadaver bags, $100 each
cyanide antidote kits, $325 each
ballistic threat helmets, $4,000 each
radiation detectors, $10,000 each
bomb search suits, $18,000 each
gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer, $20,000 each
portable radios, $30,000 each
robot, $150,000 each
portable decontamination system, $300,000 each
motion detectors, $500,000 each
vehicle identification lasers, $500,000 each
handheld biological agent detector, $750,000 each
diver/swimmer detection systems, $1,000,000 each
"The bulk of [this year's] grant money is for first-responder equipment and training, replacing expired nerve agent drugs, protective equipment," says Canton. "It's a crapshoot when you don't know how much money is coming down the pipeline. We do not want to overcommit. We want to be able to sustain, to look to the [city's] General Fund for long-term funding."
But the sudden onrush of federal money has exposed a rift among emergency officials. Canton, a longtime employee of the Federal Emergency Management Agency before taking over San Francisco's emergency department, feels the new emphasis on homeland security is draining resources from preparations for traditional disasters like earthquakes.
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