"For bioterrorism, we're about as prepared as we are for snow," said City Councilman Jack Weiss, who has spent a year working with security experts and local officials to figure out what Los Angeles needs to do to prepare for and prevent terrorist attacks. The report of the results of that investigation, released Oct. 10, runs 59 pages long. "There is a ton to do," Weiss said.
On Sunday, Nov. 24, at Sinai Temple in Westwood, the public is invited to a panel discussion featuring terrorism security experts. The meeting, sponsored by the American Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, aims to address local preparations for one of the scarier possibilities -- a biological attack.
Among the panelists who will discuss our preparedness is Dr. Peter Estacio, a senior scientist at the University of California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, on assignment with the Washington, D.C.-based Office of Public Health Preparedness of the proposed Homeland Security Department. On a national level, "we're certainly more prepared than we were. Los Angeles is more prepared than most areas," Estacio said, but "it is also more a target." He expressed concern about a biological attack on a particular industry of importance to both Los Angeles and the Jewish community. "The movie industry is an icon of American life," Estacio said, "and it happens to have a large percentage Jewish contribution, much as Wall Street."
Estacio also acknowledged the local Jewish community's relatively strong efforts to educate itself and improve preparations in case of terrorist attacks, with outreach to security officials and discussions like the one planned for Nov. 24. "The Jewish community recognizes that it has often been the target of these kinds of actions. That translates into a sense of civic duty," he said. "That is not a paranoia, it's an appropriate response."
A long list of further appropriate responses to the threat of bioterrorism that city and other local officials might take are suggested by Weiss' plan. The recommendations range from improved surveillance to detect an attack, to emergency worker safety protocols and volunteer response coordination.
So far, however, Weiss said Los Angeles security officials have not done nearly enough to prepare. "They have focused on tabletop issues -- they sit at a table and flip through a binder," he said. "What you will see in a crisis is a lot of improvising," just as Weiss remembers occurring here on Sept. 11, 2001. He described the efforts to improve planning and response so far as "some agency heads in the region who have met sporadically to deal with the issue."
Bioterrorism preparation in particular, and Los Angeles' health care system in general, are issues of particular concern to local residents. On Nov. 5, more than 73 percent of Los Angeles County voters opted to raise their own property taxes to partially fund full-service hospitals through Measure B. A portion of those tax dollars will be set aside for biological or chemical attack response.
Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Los Angeles County's director of public health, said the county Health Department is now studying the issue of how Measure B money will be implemented for bioterrorism preparations.
Critics of Los Angeles' preparations to date, like Weiss, say the work done so far -- "we have purchased some equipment for our first responders, and taken steps to secure the airport" -- is not nearly enough. Weiss credits County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky for his efforts to improve the health system, and said he believes Police Chief William Bratton has shown an active interest in terrorism preparedness.
But he worries that officials are "relying on bureaucracies to provide us with a wish list," he said. "We need a different strategy, we need to look at missions and needs." Weiss also worries about the possibility that part of the city might need to be evacuated: "If an attack occurs at 3:30 p.m. on a Friday, Los Angeles is already gridlocked."
Official preparedness alone will not be enough in case of a chemical or biological attack -- residents need information on what they must do to protect themselves. We need to provide and disseminate easily understandable information," Weiss said. "That's not cost intensive, but it is highly effective. In Israel, there is a populace that knows exactly what to do in an emergency. We'll never get to that level in Los Angeles, but I think we ought to try."
For more information on Los Angeles' bioterrorism preparedness, visit labt.org. For reservations to attend the panel discussion on Sunday, Nov. 24, at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., fax (310) 788-2824 or e-mail westernACSZ@aol.com .