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Published: Thursday, 3/20/2003

Northwest Ohio prepared for worst, crisis management officials assert

BY KELLY LECKER AND MITCH WEISS
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

Emergency management directors are preparing for the worst. They just wish they knew what the worst could be.

Northwest Ohio officials say it is hard to predict what safety measures will be taken in the next days or months. Still, they caution residents not to panic and say that the threat of terrorism in the area is low.

“You know if a tornado is coming, you go to a basement. You can prepare, and that means you can have the peace of mind. If you don't know what to expect, that's what causes the panic and the fear. And that's what terrorism is. And that's what we don't want to give in to,” said Ron Walker, director of the Williams County Emergency Management Agency.

Local emergency management directors said they have had disaster plans for years - and plans for bioterrorism threats such as smallpox and chemical poisonings since the Sept. 11 attacks. They are meeting daily with law enforcement to evaluate the threat to local residents and schools.

But they cautioned if the country goes to the highest level of security - red - local counties won't necessarily face restrictions such as closed schools and a ban on traffic.

“We will have a group together to evaluate why we are going to a threat level red. A threat level red can be triggered because they blew up the Golden Gate bridge, or it could be because they got information,” said Wood County EMA director Eric Larson, who has fielded numerous calls from people concerned about safety. “If there's a problem in the subway, how will that affect the people in Wood County? The big thing is we need to not incite panic.”

Mr. Walker agreed.

“If there is a bombing on the East Coast, are we going to close our schools? I don't think so. But if they are bombing certain businesses, we might have to act,” he said.

Fertilizers and farm chemicals such as anhydrous ammonia are a special focus for emergency directors in northwest Ohio.

The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 showed the dangers of fertilizer chemicals in the wrong hands, and local counties have already had thefts of anhydrous ammonia by people setting up drug labs.

Lucas County EMA director William Halsey said the agency is warning farmers and chemical companies to keep a close eye on their property.

“We have refineries in the county. We have a lot of chemicals in the area. All of them have been urged to increase security,” he said. “We're urging people to look at strange trucks parked in their parking lots.

“And with the farmers, it's not only the chemicals. We have to eat the food that those guys are raising. We don't want someone to poison the food supply. So the farming industry - whether it's the grain elevators, The Andersons who sell the fertilizer, the men and women who raise our cattle - they all have to be vigilant.''

Chris Sargent, branch manager of Jennings-Gomer Equity in Allen County, said the company has been on heightened alert for weeks. Jennings-Gomer has 30,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia stored in tanks. The chemical is used to treat corn.

“Right now, we're watching everything a lot closer than we ever have,'' Mr. Sargent said. “You just don't know what's going to happen. You want to be careful and prepared. We lock things up a little bit better.”

In Lucas County, emergency officials met yesterday to discuss plans and make sure contacts are up to date. These meetings happen every day.

“Everybody knows what we're doing. We're not doing anything differently. We're just doing more of it. Things are a lot more intense,” Mr. Halsey said.

Williams County has special deputies and volunteers on standby. Schools, law enforcement, and government officials are working to monitor any threat that might come, Mr. Walker said.

“Not being able to predict the future, we're on standby, and we're ready to go if we're needed. Until you know, you're just sort of in limbo,” he said. “We had to put a terrorism annex on our plan, which only included natural disasters. Now it covers biochemical, explosives, nuclear, and all these other issues we never had to deal with before. We have people in the community who are alarmists and some who have good common sense.”

Steve Odenweller, Putnam County's emergency management director, said his biggest concern is residents feeling they could not be affected.

“We still have to be prepared. The likelihood of something initiating in this area is small, but it can affect us,” he said.

“There is no specific evidence that Ohio is a target, and there is no information about any specific target, location, or asset in Ohio,” Gov. Bob Taft said. “Ohioans should go about their usual daily activities. But they should also stay in frequent contact with the mass media and other sources of information, and they should also report highly unusual or suspicious activity to authorities.”

Jim Provance of The Blade's Columbus bureau contributed to this report.



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