Ulmer: Alaska now better prepared for any disaster

Posted: Thursday, November 08, 2001

Exactly one year before general election day 2002, gubernatorial candidate Fran Ulmer, Alaska's current lieutenant governor, spoke before the Kenai Chamber of Commerce at its weekly luncheon.

She spoke mostly about the state's reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., and added just a few words about her candidacy.

"The two-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is a good time to reflect on the state of Alaska's emergency preparedness," she said. "Many individual Alaskans have reached out and helped the victims of the attacks. It emphasizes how Alaskans help their neighbors, even when their neighbors live across the United States."

She mentioned that three weeks ago she welcomed a dozen members of the Alaska One Medical Assistance team back from 12 days at "Ground Zero," the site of the World Trade Center attacks.

"You could see on their faces the relief of returning to Alaska and the pain of living at Ground Zero," she said.

Pastor Jon Walters later pointed out that local Salvation Army Envoy Craig Fanning also had volunteered at Ground Zero.

Ulmer said the Alaska One team flew an American and an Alaska flag over the site on lower Manhattan, and she later had them flown over the state capitol in Juneau. She has since sent them around the state to different school districts to be used as the catalyst of discussions with students.

"It will allow them to reflect on the importance of freedom and the experience of being an American citizen," she said.

She said the state held "Democracy Week" in October, and encouraged legislators and mayors to visit schools and talk about the importance of voting, civic engagement and making America better.

"That's the legacy of Sept. 11, that responsibility," she said. "A democracy is not just about freedoms, but about responsibility, too."

Ulmer said that after the attacks the state of Alaska reassessed what it can do to be better prepared.

"The first thing we did was deal with the transportation challenges," she said.

There are about 250 members of the Alaska National Guard at various airports in the state, and security has been beefed up at the border crossing on the Dalton Highway, near the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Jim Fisher asked Ulmer if the Alaska Guard had been federalized, and if not, who was paying them.

"They are state employees, but the federal government is paying the costs," Ulmer said. "It remains to be seen the total cost."

The state also set up the Emergency Services Response Center in Anchorage, which is available to coordinate emergency response "every hour of every day."

The center is linked to state, local and military responders to provide coordinated efforts when emergencies occur.

"This sounds very simple," she said, "but there wasn't such a place before."

She said it got its first test when the trans-Alaska oil pipeline was shot and leaked thousands of gallons of crude oil near Fairbanks not long after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Ulmer said Gov. Tony Knowles is planning on making a detailed announcement about the Homeland Security office on Monday. The office is designed to fill in gaps in state security and link with the new federal Homeland Security office created by President George W. Bush.

Since the country is also under attack by terrorists sending anthrax spores through the mail, Ulmer said the state is also looking at that threat. She said there have been 50 false anthrax alarms in the state.

"That's the good news, that they were false alarms. The bad news is it took a lot of time and energy finding out they were false," she said. "But it gave us the ability to test ourselves."

She said the state has a five-day supply of anthrax antibiotics for up to 15,000 people, and can access federal reserves within 12 hours.

"So we're in pretty good shape," she said.

The effects of the disaster on the economy is also a concern of the state's. Ulmer said she spoke with representatives of the tourism industry and they were concerned that the bookings for next season are not coming in. The good news there, she said, is that there may be additional interest in Alaska tourism, since it will be seen as a safer alternative than, say, the Mediterranean countries.

"We need to assure people that Alaska is a safe place and that we are prepared," she said, adding that the governor has formed a group to study the effects of terrorism on Alaska, and how to head-off any such impact. The group was given 45 days to come up with recommendations.

Chamber president Robert Peterkin asked Ulmer if she was looking for someone to be a potential running mate in next year's election.

After the audience speculation died down that Peterkin was looking for the job, Ulmer said, "I can always use a good man."

She pointed out that she really has no choice in selection of a running mate, as the voters make the decision in the primary election and the two are paired in the general election by party affiliation. No Democrat has filed for that office yet.

"There are some excellent candidates out there that might file, but I can't speak for them," she said.

She spoke of how important being lieutenant governor was, and how important it was that that person and the governor get along and work well together. One of the main duties of her current position is overseeing the elections in the state.

She said that Alaska, along with one other state -- Minnesota, received an A grade from the group Common Cause for election reforms and was ranked number one in the nation by the Digital Democracy Project for its work in helping Alaskans access government over the Internet.

Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District Executive Director Betsy Arbelovsky pointed out that the Seattle area can attribute 90,000 jobs to connections with Alaska, worth about $1.6 billion a year.

"How can we get even 10 percent of that moved north?" she asked.

"We're all aware of the inter-relationship between the state of Washington and the state of Alaska, which has existed since the territorial days," Ulmer said. "The best way to bring business here is to buy locally. Support your own merchants and experts, rather than going outside."

Ulmer said she expects to be back in Kenai many times in the next year as she runs for governor, and wants to hear from residents any ideas they may have for her.

It wasn't all politics at the lunch, however; Ulmer announced it was chamber executive director Aud Walaszek's birthday, and led the standing room only crowd in singing her "Happy Birthday."

Next week's chamber speaker will be Mike LeNorman of ERA Aviation. The luncheon is at noon at Old Town Village Restaurant and the public is welcome to attend.

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