In Washington, terror threat has residents on edge

By Matt Stearns and Heather Phillips Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT) WASHINGTON _ The nation’s capital is full of people who figure they’re at the center of the universe-that-matters. But these days, many of them are a little spooked, and not at all sure that the center of the universe is the best place to be. The terror threat level is high. The federal government has advised people to stock up on essentials like bottled water, batteries, duct tape and plastic screening. While threat levels are national in scope, they bear a special resonance for Washingtonians. It is here that a plane crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, killing 184; here that the anthrax scare killed two postal workers, and here that the snipers did most of their killing. “I’d rather be in the Midwest,” said Helen Dalrymple, a spokeswoman for the Library of Congress, which is located across the street from the Capitol building. “We’ve got retired friends who are in Maine and happy to be there.” Extra precautions are evident everywhere. Patrolling F-16s thunder in the night. Surveillance helicopters hover over the Mall. Anti-aircraft missile batteries bristle within protective range of the White House, Pentagon and Capitol. The subway system has deployed extra police officers and canines, especially during morning and evening rush hours. “The idea is to make yourself less of a target by having a greater presence,” said Polly Hanson, chief of the transit police. In some Senate offices, gas masks are being distributed to staff. At the Library of Congress, employees are undergoing emergency evacuation team training. (EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM) In the Virginia suburbs, 14 local governments teamed up to prepare a pamphlet on emergency preparedness, giving residents tips on creating emergency supply kits, making financial preparations and preparing for an extended loss of power. It’s being distributed to residents this week. (END OPTIONAL TRIM) Local stores say they’ve been engulfed in recent days by customers stocking for emergencies. “There’s been a rush on toilet paper, paper towels, water, batteries, duct tape, just in the last couple of days,” said Caroline Walgren, the manager of a Costco warehouse store near the Pentagon. “People are very cautious.” At a Home Depot in suburban Silver Spring, Md., store manager Jon Fierro said the crowd on Tuesday rivaled that of a Saturday, typically the store’s busiest day. Melinda Schnare of Alexandria, Va., an advertising executive and the mother of a 17-year-old daughter, took matters into her own hands. Schnare stocked up on food, arranged to use a neighbor’s basement as a shelter, got her emergency phone contacts in order, instructed her daughter to keep her gas-tank full and her cell phone charged, and handed her daughter a sealed envelope with $100 cash. “What needed to be done was to get a plan together to alleviate some anxiety,” said Schnare. One Capitol Hill aide said he and his wife have agreed to meet at a remote house in rural Virginia in the case of an attack. “Boom! Get the kid and go,” the aide said. Despite such precautions, the sense of anxiety is infused with a fatalism that has kept many folks going about their daily business. There is concern, often leavened by gallows humor. (Hanson, the transit police chief, suggested that a Cosmopolitan, a popular cocktail, might help reduce stress). But so far there is no sign of panic. (EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) So while rents in Washington have fallen and vacancy rates are at a three-year high, anecdotal evidence suggests no unusually heavy workplace absences among federal workers in recent days. Subway ridership remains steady, Hanson said. Some say they doubt duct tape and plastic sheeting will do much good if a terrorist drives a dirty bomb into their office building. Some profess faith that the government’s military, police, and intelligence operations will prevent another deadly attack. Others say that since nothing has happened since Sept. 11, the threat remains amorphous enough to be kept at an emotional distance. So even though you can’t miss the large bioterrorism monitors in congressional office buildings, “You’ll be afraid of your own shadow if you think about it all the time,” said congressional aide Steve Adamske. “We need to go on with our lives and live in the freedom that we enjoy and not be afraid of something that could or could not happen.” ___ (Sumana Chatterjee contributed to this report.) (EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) ___ For more information on what to do about the terrorist threat, here are some helpful Web sites: “Are You Ready? A Guide to Citizen Preparedness” is available through the FEMA Publications warehouse (1.800.480.2520), FEMA publication H-34. It is also available in a Microsoft Word or a PDF format at: American Red Cross: in Spanish and English: American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: ___ ‘copy 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.