County officials: Prepare, don’t panic

The week leading up to Feb. 14 &045; a time that traditionally sees only grocery stores and florists rushed by frenzied shoppers &045; instead saw building supply and hardware stores facing a fierce demand from citizens in Shelby County and much of the nation.

Amidst the usual last-minute shoppers scouring the shelves for leftover greeting cards and the few remaining unwilted roses, was a new consumer, one created in the settled dust of a fallen American icon, driven by panic from the threat of terror and the anxiety of impending war.

Duct tape and plastic sheeting are in short supply at local stores as Shelby County officials urge citizens not to &uot;overreact.&uot;

With the U.S. on the brink of war with Iraq and the national terrorist attack level raised to &uot;high,&uot; the surge in sales is attributed to a focus on a particular one of the many recommendations made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the newly created Department of Homeland Security.

Included in FEMA’s preparedness plan and suggested emergency kit are duct tape and plastic bags to seal doors and windows in the event of a possible biological, chemical or radiological attack.

But officials worry that some Shelby County residents are taking the warnings and suggestions too far.

&uot;I really don’t want to go to someone’s house and find them passed out on the floor because they have duct-taped themselves in their room after they heard the kids down the street shooting off fireworks,&uot; said Chief Michael O’Conner of the North Shelby Fire Department.

Shelby County officials are encouraging citizens to prepare, not panic.

&uot;We want people to go about their normal lifestyle and, if they deem it necessary, to have a disaster kit for any major disaster,&uot; said Don Greene, director of the Shelby County Emergency Management Agency.

The Shelby County EMA last week mailed some 60,000 emergency preparedness brochures to citizens around the county.

The brochures, including guidelines for what to do in the event of a weather-related disaster or act of terrorism, were released just a week after U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials raised the national terrorist attack threat level.

On Feb. 7, the level was elevated from yellow to orange, the second highest of the five-level, color-coded advisory system.

The increase denotes a &uot;high risk&uot; of a terrorist attack and marks the first time the level has been raised since the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington D.C.

However, Greene said the local agency had planned to disburse the brochures long before the heightened alert.

Greene said the brochure, funded by the Shelby County Planning Commission and a FEMA grant, was originally planned for release as early as last October.

He said much of the information contained in the brochure has been distributed by the agency for years and that the section on terrorism was put together following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

&uot;There is nothing earth-shattering in (the brochure) but because of the timing, people had thought we had invented something, that we had some inside information,&uot; Greene said.

The brochure’s terrorism category provides information concerning anthrax, smallpox and instances involving biochemical or nuclear exposure.

It recommends maintaining an emergency supply kit under the assumption of being &uot;without assistance for a minimum of 72 hours.&uot;

In the brochure, duct tape is listed as one of the items in the kit, which is designed to provide aid in the event of many different types of emergencies, not just terrorism.

However, the brochure makes no mention of taping windows or doors.

Despite that fact, Greene said the agency received a flood of phone calls concerning the method, the effectiveness of which has been questioned by some experts.

And building supply and hardware stores continue to struggle to keep duct tape and plastic sheeting in stock.

Columbiana’s Brown Lumber and Building Supply has sold nearly 100 rolls of duct tape in the last three weeks and retail manager Jimmy McGaughy was told the Ace Hardware warehouse was completely out when he sent for a replacement order.

&uot;One lady came in and bought a roll of (plastic) and a roll of duct tape to tape up the doors to her pantry,&uot; McGaughy said. &uot;She said she was going to use her pantry as an emergency shelter.&uot;

Other vendors reported similar increases in sales in recent weeks.

&uot;Have your supplies on hand,&uot; Greene said. &uot;But don’t go ahead and isolate yourself in a separate room in your house at this point. Just be prepared in case an emergency does happen.&uot;

Meanwhile, officials like Chief O’Conner in the North Shelby Fire District stress the unlikeliness of an attack in Shelby County, an area with no monuments or attractions considered a likely target for terrorists.

&uot;Our biggest, most valuable resource is us &045; the population,&uot; O’Conner said. &uot;If it gets to (Shelby County), things have not gone well. If it gets to us, you and I will be wearing camouflage uniforms.

&uot;I think there is a real tendency to overblow the situation because there is so much unknown about Al-Qaida and how the organization operates.&uot;

Undue panic over the terrorism alert could even hinder emergency officials if people fail to approach their concerns with some level of common sense, O’Conner said.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the North Shelby Fire Department responded to more than 25 calls reporting possible Anthrax.

O’Conner said none of the department’s investigations revealed the dangerous substance, which is often identified in a white powder form.

What they did find was meat tenderizer, dried glue and other common household materials.

&uot;Obviously that takes away resources,&uot; O’Conner said. &uot;In some of the smaller areas that have a limited amount of (equipment) and personnel, that could cause a delay.&uot;

O’Conner encourages Shelby County residents to be responsible while preparing for a possible emergency of any type.

&uot;It’s always a wonderful idea to be vigilant and prepared,&uot; he said. &uot;But we have to be intelligent and use the sense God gave us.&uot;

Information concerning the Emergency Preparedness Brochure can be found on the Shelby County website at www.shelbycountyalabama.com/departmentsandagencies/ema.shtm