No big rush for supplies, but security still a priority

Posted: Sunday, February 16, 2003

Americans in some parts of the country may be preparing for the worst now that President George W. Bush has raised the security threat level to orange and war with Iraq seems imminent, but here on the Kenai Peninsula, life appears to be going on normally.

A quick check of department stores indicates no run on emergency supplies. Shelves remain stocked with what appear to be the most popular safeguards against terrorist attack in other parts of the country -- duct tape and plastic sheeting.

Scott Ulmer, owner of Ulmer's Drug and Hardware in Homer, said he hasn't heard one customer inquire about safety gear or even raise the topic of the terrorism concern.

"I haven't seen anything that would qualify as a run," he said.

Neither had Terry Rahlfs, manager of the Soldotna Fred Meyer store, though the store is preparing. Fred Meyer warehouses, he said, are shipping emergency supply-type merchandise to their stores.

While the general population may appear casual, officials whose jobs require them to tune up emergency management procedures are not taking the threat of terror attacks lightly, even if the Kenai Peninsula is relatively free of high-value targets like the subways, suspension bridges and monuments common in large urban areas of the United States.

Lisa Parker, with Agrium public relations, said safety measures have been put in place at the company's fertilizer plant.

"Security issues are something everyone takes very seriously," she said.

Not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, steps were taken to heighten security around the petro-chemical plants at Nikiski. For instance, it is now illegal to park along a two-mile stretch of the Kenai Spur Highway from just south of BP's gas-to-liquids plant to north of the Tesoro Refinery.

Alan Thye, safety supervisor at Agrium , said that in the wake of the terrorist attacks, Agrium, then Unocal, met with its industrial neighbors to map out their own security levels, even before the Department of Homeland Security was created.

"We pre-planned what we would do for medium- and high-risk scenarios," Thye said. "When the homeland security levels were adopted, ours fell right in place."

As levels were announced, security at the Nikiski plants remained in step with federal guidelines, he said. Security forces at the plants were already cooperating.

"We call it our neighborhood watch," he said.

Thye said no matter what may cause a problem at the plant, be it an accident or sabotage, the immediate job is containment. He said he believes the response at the plants has been appropriate.

One advantage for the plants is that they are self-contained. For instance, security fences surround all of them.

"Security at facilities around the country used to be about making sure people didn't walk out with stuff," he said. "They're still tasked with that, but its more important now to make sure people outside don't bring things into a plant. There's been a shift in thinking."

Parker also said Agrium has had an ongoing safety program meant to educate area residents about how to themselves in the event of a chemical release at the plant. A video explaining the program, called "Shelter In Place," demonstrates how to seal up one's home against airborne chemicals.

Since Sept. 11, however, Agrium has been sharing the video and emergency preparedness information with anyone who wants it anywhere in the country.

"The first phone call I got was from someone on Long Island (New York)," Parker said. "It was just a homeowner."

He'd heard about Agrium's chemical emergency preparedness program and wanted the video.

"Since Sept. 11, we've distributed over 1,000 copies to 32 states," she said. "I get calls or e-mails every week asking met to send it to a school, emergency management office or fire department."

Copies of the video are available from Agrium and can be watched on-line at Agrium's Web site,

Parker said if peninsula residents appear less concerned about a possible disaster, it might be because this region is prone to natural disasters.

"Here in Alaska, especially in Cook Inlet, it can be an earthquake, a volcano or a flood. In terms of disasters, we get hit with them on a regular basis."

People here simply may already have on hand the kinds of basic emergency tools being recommended to citizens elsewhere in the country.

"We can deal with it," she said.

Capt. Tom Bowman, commander of the Alaska State Trooper's Detachment E, which covers the peninsula and Kodiak Island, said he agreed with the theory that Alaskans are generally more prepared than many people in the rest of the country on a regular basis, primarily because things like earthquakes and floods are fairly common. Lifestyle, too, plays a part. For instance, he said, people in other parts of the country are much more likely to stop at the store to buy that evening's dinner than are many Alaskans who stock up with food stuffs on a weekly or even monthly schedule. In that respect, they are better prepared when it comes to food.

"Our people are more independent," he said.

As for the troopers, his office receives regular bulletins from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI and monitors those closely, Bowman said.

The refineries and the Agrium plant may not offer would-be terrorists the kind of symbolism attached to New York skyscrapers, Washington, D.C., monuments or San Francisco suspension bridges, but they certainly qualify as the biggest local targets, he said. As higher value targets get better protection, terrorists might begin eying so-called softer targets such as industrial plants, he said. Thus, preventing such attacks at the Nikiski plants is a top priority. Troopers, he said, have stepped up patrols in the area and frequently meet with plant safety officials.

But he acknowledged that the trooper force is stretched thin. The national norm is 2.7 troopers per 1,000 citizens. Detachment E has just one for every1,058 people.

Bowman said people can do their part by simple being more aware of new people in the area and of odd events.

"Things that don't make sense to you are things we may want to check out," he said.

The borough stays prepared through its Office of Emergency Management.

David Gibbs, the boroung's emergency management coordinator, said that while there is a lot of emphasis nationally on the terrorist threat, the Cook Inlet region is much more likely to experience earthquakes, volcanoes, wildfire and floods.

"We can't ignore what we are reasonably sure we are going to have," he said.

"The beauty of planning for a disaster is that if you're planning for one you're planning for all."

Gibbs said it's been business as usual in his office.

"There was no specific information given to us about what the (terrorist) threats were," he said. "It's difficult to plan around those."

Gibbs agreed many Alaskans already are prepared, at least with things like duct tape and plastic and days' worth of food. Events such as ash falls or even the possibility of a chemical release make such preparedness wise.

The Office of Emergency Management is looking for new ways to improve its community outreach efforts with an eye toward educating the public on how best to prepare for disasters. He recommended people be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours and possibly longer. Last fall's floods demonstrated that need, he said.

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