Letters to the Editor

Week of Wednesday, February 4, 2004

When Things Go Boom

Hell, it'll never happen here: I had hoped that the usually independent-minded SF Weekly was immune to the terrorist hysteria that has taken over the public's imagination since 9/11 ["Surprise!," by Peter Byrne, Jan. 21]. But no, we're told in graphic terms how unprepared San Francisco is for a terrorist attack from such laughable sources as a hijacked ferryboat.

First, let's review how this whole thing started. In September 2001 a group of zealots got past what is now generally acknowledged to have been laughably amateurish airport security, hijacked a few commercial airliners, and crashed them into some symbolic structures. Though admittedly spectacular, the very method of delivery underscored the lack of a meaningful logistics or weapons capability. More to the point, two years later, the U.S. government issued a high-severity orange terrorist alert for -- you guessed it -- a possible threat posed by zealots hijacking commercial airliners for purposes of crashing them into symbolic structures. So much for an "army" of organized terrorism.

Second, let's consider the threat vis-à-vis our government's notable multiyear failures to interdict both illegal drugs and illegal immigrants. Are we truly expected to believe that the government is going to succeed in interdicting professionally trained, equipped, and financed terrorists where it couldn't previously interdict uneducated drug smugglers and undocumented workers?

By all means, let's prepare ourselves for any real threats: Here in San Francisco that means a major earthquake. But by all means, let us be honest enough to acknowledge that the media's continued flogging of a virtually nonexistent terrorist threat has taken on the tone, not to mention the credibility, of a poorly told campfire ghost story.

Riley B. VanDyke

Your writer terrorized my life!:It is unfortunate that after hours of interviews with city officials and reviewing numerous documents the best Peter Byrne could do was a rehash of last year's grand jury report instead of a balanced report on a complex subject. Mr. Byrne, like the grand jury, misinterprets facts and, in some cases, just plain gets them wrong.

Among the many facts Mr. Byrne got wrong:

Mayor Newsom did not replace me as director of emergency services -- I chose to resign, in part because of frustration over Homeland Security issues at all levels of government.

The Disaster Council coordinates planning as required by state law -- it does not coordinate emergency response.

The city charter does not allow the mayor to declare martial law.

The Incident Command System supplements but does not supplant departmental chains of command.

The city has not requested $30 million -- Congress sets the amount of the Urban Areas Security Initiative grants.

I am at a loss to understand why Mr. Byrne felt the need to take many of my comments out of context and to fabricate others. My comments about food and the authorities of my office were made in a written response to specific issues raised by the grand jury and were not the general statements Mr. Byrne implies. Mr. Byrne had one brief telephone conversation with me regarding evacuation planning that did not include mass relocation, and we never discussed the radio stockpile or backup of the 911 system. The term "Zeitgeist crew" is one I have never used and our volunteers support response operations, not the 911 system.

Mr. Byrne is so focused on finding fault that he neglects to ask that most important of journalistic questions, "Why?" For all the federal government's prioritization of homeland security it is only within the last few months that the city has begun to receive the limited funds promised for first responder equipment and training. The large UASI grants still await approval. No standards exist to guide the development of local response plans. Under these circumstances, it is surprising not that we are unprepared but that we are as well prepared as we are.

Mr. Byrne does get one thing partially right: the confusion over lead responsibility for terrorism. This mirrors the confusion at the state and federal levels and is a direct result of segregating terrorism from all-hazard planning. Modern emergency management, with roots in the national security planning of the '50s, had always integrated terrorism into all-hazards planning prior to Sept. 11.

Mr. Byrne and the grand jury miss the major issue: So long as we hold a single official with limited resources and authority solely responsible for emergency planning, our planning will also be limited. What is needed is a new paradigm: the mayor as director of emergency services, a professional Office of Emergency Services under the mayor providing oversight and coordination, and a comprehensive program that assigns responsibility for program elements to department heads and holds them accountable.

Lucien Canton
San Francisco Peter Byrne replies: Canton makes two good points and several not-so-good ones.

He is correct that the mayor cannot declare martial law. Instead, the city charter gives San Francisco's chief executive sweeping civil emergency powers, including the authority to commandeer private property and impress citizens into labor details to clean up disaster scenes. The mayor also has command of the police and can request help from the governor, who may impose martial law by deploying National Guard troops.

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