The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

April 22, 2013

I’m a prepper, you’re a prepper

— Shortly after 9/11, there was a list of 500 chemical facilities, each of which, if attacked, could produce a toxic cloud big enough to kill 100,000 people. Of the top seven in New Jersey, three were in the circulation area of a newspaper where I worked.

The governor said these sites were weapons of mass destruction in our midst.

There were a couple of aging nuclear power plants, built near the border with Delaware in the late 1970s. Their permits had been extended so often that spent nuclear rods were now being stored above ground in allegedly impenetrable caskets because Nevada would not allow radiating nuclear waste under one of its mountains.

We all drove around with potassium iodide (KI) tablets in our glove compartments. If taken when directed by the health department or the governor, KI pills protect thyroid glands against radioactive iodine. Why the thyroid gland should be our last viable living part was never explained.

There were also miles of fenced in and gated turf lining the Jersey side of the Delaware River across from Philadelphia with refineries, brown fields, Nike missile silos and tank farms — a stretch of true threats and unexamined memories.

Lightning once ignited a tank of jet fuel. We did a lot of reporting on “prevailing winds” for Internet readers. The next morning, we published dramatic billowing black smoke photos with spectators sitting on their cars and in lawn chairs upwind in the foreground.

Another time, some sticky gunk landed on everyone’s car within several miles radius and a refinery offered cleanups or new paint jobs.

Little was known about the third site, in an industrial park. It seemed to have something to do with refurbishing batteries. The line on that place was that it stored something that would Bhopal the entire county in minutes.

The Bhopal disaster (youngsters) happened in 1984 when a Union Carbide pesticide plant leaked 93,000 pounds of odorless, but toxic, methyl isocyanate gas into the shantytowns of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The death toll varies from an official 3,787 to 16,000-30,000 with another 500,000 injured.

All we needed to know about that third place was that if something really happened, our readers could hope for a mention in somebody else’s story.

By 2005, the Homeland Security Department tallied 80,000 such vulnerable sites and was a year behind in creating its list of places that could become terrorist targets if plans weren’t made to protect them.

It didn’t seem as if the Boston Marathon would be the second biggest attack after 9/11 if it is ruled to be foreign, or the Oklahoma City bombing, if it is called domestic.

The thunderous explosion at the West Fertilizer plant in Texas a few days later had a comparable or larger casualty list. It drew less national attention, mainly because it was remote from major media centers and quickly explainable as an industrial accident.

Location tends to shift the emphasis from cause to effect. No terrorist, no story.

In these tales of two disasters, however, most rural communities can probably glean more from West Texas than Boston.

Our emergencies are more likely to be natural disasters, industrial events or transportation accidents. Still no need to harden the local Walmart.

We all believe county offices of emergency management have various scenarios mapped out and that health care and first responder units drill regularly for possible events.

But few of us know our roles — how we can access reliable information in the absence of power and cell phones, what supplies we should store in case public utilities are out, what kind of help we could and should offer to each other.

Events of this past week in Boston and Texas qualify as local news. They remind us of our responsibility for preparedness. The better we prepare to maintain our own well being in times of community stress, the more likely we will be able to help others.

Even if that means simply that we are self-sustaining enough so that response and rescue teams can devote scarce resources to people with greater need, that, too, would be a contribution to the cause.