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Securing the Homeland

April 23, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: Despite being the capital of the most populous state, Sacramento has been designated a third-tier target area for purposes of homeland security. That means federal authorities believe it isn’t as likely to be attacked as New York or Washington or San Francisco. But Sheriff Lou Blanas disagrees.

SHERIFF LOU BLANAS: But it takes about three hours to set this room up.

SPENCER MICHELS: He set up this room as an emergency headquarters shortly after the Iraq War got underway, and the threat of terrorism at home increased.

SHERIFF LOU BLANAS: You know, I don’t have a crystal ball– nobody does– to look in the future and see if and when there is going to be another attack on American soil. But I have to tell you that Oklahoma City is probably a good example of why the cities should not be tiered. We are all preparing for the worst case scenario. So saying Sacramento is a third- tier city is just a category that somebody decided to put the city in, but believe me, we’re just as vulnerable as any other city.

SPENCER MICHELS: The day the war started, Blanas cancelled some days off and put his tactical officers on 12-hour shifts. Workdays now are more normal, but the high state of readiness remains, despite a large financial burden. (Dog barking)

SPENCER MICHELS: Is this a hardship? Are you going to be able to continue it?

SHERIFF LOU BLANAS: Well, we’re going to have to continue it. Our whole lives have changed. We’re more aware of a potential terrorist attack.

SPENCER MICHELS: To prepare for a possible chemical or biological weapons attack, Blanas’ department organized a drill for local police, firemen, and National Guard. An object of concern has been Folsom Dam, just upstream on the American River from Sacramento. The Defense Department decided it was vulnerable to terrorist attack. Once the war started, the road across the dam was closed, diverting 18,000 vehicles a day through nearby towns like Folsom. Thomas Aiken is area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, which administers the dam.

SPENCER MICHELS: What is the idea of vulnerability if somebody were to bomb, or in some other way, breach this dam? What would happen?

THOMAS AIKEN: We would have 12 feet of water at the state capitol in a matter of hours. There’s over 700,000 people directly in harm’s way. We took the only course of action that we could have.

SPENCER MICHELS: But some residents have been inconvenienced by the closure, and are questioning the decision.

BOB CRAWFORD: It looks like to me it’s an overkill situation, but I’m not privy to the information they have. But it would be very difficult, we think, to have someone actually do some serious damage to that.

JENNIFER DERICH: They had wanted to close that road a long time ago, and they just wanted to take advantage of the situation right now.

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite their skepticism about an attack on the dam, these residents of nearby Orangevale take homeland security seriously. Bob Crawford showed his neighbors an emergency preparedness kit.

BOB CRAWFORD: My flashlight that never needs to have batteries.


SPENCER MICHELS: With help from the state government, Crawford and others have organized a citizen core council, based on the neighborhood watch model. They want to be prepared for terrorism threats, as well as for natural disasters.

BOB CRAWFORD: But it does have batteries.

SPENCER MICHELS: Homeland security in Sacramento is more than a local issue. Coast Guard planes monitor the entire west coast for suspicious ships. The planes fly out of decommissioned McClellan Air Force Base. The old base is currently also used to train local police and other law enforcement. Now, officials and developers are trying to establish it as a western center for homeland security. County development director Paul Hahn recently went to Washington to lobby for federal funds.

PAUL HAHN: What we’ve been talking to Congress about is, to take some facilities that we have here at the former McClellan Air Force Base, and a facility, a closed nuclear plant that we have down in Sacramento, and combine them and create sort of a really efficient, cost effective training facility, sort of a Quantico West for first responders and firefighters and police officers up and down the West Coast, to deal with these new threats.

SPENCER MICHELS: Nearby, the University of California at Davis, which already studies infectious diseases, is seeking federal funds for a new lab. The plan calls for a secure facility, one of very few in the nation, to study and produce vaccines against biological agents. The threat of terrorism has increased chances for funding. So far, the Davis City Council opposes the plan, fearing a lab with dangerous viruses could create a potential terrorist target. Sacramento area officials are of two minds about homeland security. They want to increase the safety of their community, but they don’t want raise the level of anxiety too high.