Lawmaker Offers Americans Tips to Prepare for Nuclear, Terrorist Attacks

Many of the go bags, medicine kits and boxes of canned food and water that Americans stockpiled after the 9/11 attacks have been lost, expired or gone bad.

by Franco Ordonez, McClatchy Washington Bureau / March 16, 2015
Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., created a handbook to help constituents and other members of the public plan what to do in case of an emergency.

(TNS) — Many of those so-called “go bags,” medicine kits and boxes of canned food and water that Americans stockpiled after the 9/11 attacks have been lost, expired or gone bad.

Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., says it’s time to pack a new emergency bag and draft updated evacuation plans in preparation for another terrorist attack. He’s put together a “how to” handbook to help constituents and other members of the public plan what to do.

“I was a Boy Scout, and the motto of the Boy Scouts was to be prepared,” Pittenger said.

The chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare said his handbook was inspired by growing concerns about terrorism and the Islamic State group. U.S. intelligence officials say that more than 100 people from the United States have traveled to Syria to fight there. Authorities fear those people might return radicalized and trained to carry out their own attacks.

Americans can alleviate anxieties by learning as much as they can about how to survive an attack, Pittenger said. But some who study terrorism threats see the manual, and its graphic pictures of mushroom clouds, as backhanded fear-mongering.

“The basic idea being to prepare for an emergency, that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and people are not very good at that,” said John Mueller, an Ohio State University political science professor who studies terrorism threats. “But to heighten all this terrorism seems pretty irresponsible to me.”

Pittenger’s handbook has chapters on terrorist hazards, explosions and nuclear blasts. His home state of North Carolina experiences tornadoes, weather-related power outages and the annual threat of hurricanes. While he says the book is also intended to assist citizens with natural disasters, there are no chapters dedicated to them.

It’s more likely that an American would be killed in a car accident or drown in a bathtub than die in a terrorist attack. The annual risk of being killed in a terrorism attack here in the United States is about 1 in 4 million, according to decades of data from the Global Terrorism Database analyzed by Mueller, author of “Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them.”

Americans were understandably rattled after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and subsequent threat-level warnings about possible terrorism. At the time, government officials suggested people buy duct tape and plastic sheeting to protect themselves from chemical or biological weapons.

In October 2001, 46 percent of Americans saw terrorism as the most important problem facing the U.S., according to Gallup polls. The numbers fell as years passed with no significant attacks. By 2011, only 1 percent named terrorism as the top problem, Gallup found.

Fears are on the rise again, however. In February, after a rash of beheading videos from the Islamic State and a January attack on a French newspaper’s offices, 8 percent of Americans named terrorism as the most important problem facing the United States, according to Gallup. And more people report dissatisfaction with security from terrorism.

Pictures of mushroom clouds don’t faze Jack Tomarchio, former deputy undersecretary for intelligence and analysis operations at the Department of Homeland Security. It’s important for officials to share good data with the citizenry, he said, which he thinks could offset fear, innuendo and rumor.

“The more good information that people can digest easily and quickly without getting into jargon is a good thing,” he said.

Many Americans, including some Charlotte-area residents in Pittenger’s district, don’t see terrorism as a significant threat because they don’t live close to hot spots such as New York or Washington. But Pittenger said that wasn’t a reason to be complacent.

“We have a major banking center,” Pittenger said, referencing the headquarters of Bank of America. “We have two nuclear power plants in this region. We have a major airport. We’re not out in the middle of Kansas somewhere. We’re in a major region.”

Pittenger’s handbook includes a common-sense list of items that would be useful in various emergencies and natural disasters.

They include first aid supplies, a flashlight, duct tape, a battery-powered radio with extra batteries, and special items such as medicine and baby formula.

Much of the list is compiled from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Ready.gov website on emergency preparedness.

But the 22-page handbook also includes graphic photos of mushroom clouds and the damaged Pentagon after the 9/11 attacks. Pittenger said people could find much worse on television.

Former FEMA Director R. David Paulison said he’d likely have taken a softer approach with the language and layout, but that most people could benefit from an emergency plan.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a terrorist event or not. It could be a gas explosion,” said Paulison, who served under President George W. Bush. “What do you do with a hurricane coming in? How do you prepare for an earthquake? How do you prepare if something catastrophic happens to your building? Where are you going to go?”

In North Carolina, Pittenger keeps his emergency kit — a metal box — in the basement near his tools, he said. The box includes water, canned food and a radio.

Americans can no longer feel protected by the surrounding oceans, Pittenger said. He called them a “false sense of security.”

“Let’s just think smart,” he said. “Let’s don’t think after the fact.”

©2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.