At 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, as commuters converge on Manhattan, an al Qaeda operative explodes a dirty bomb outside the New York Stock Exchange. The device, while not especially powerful, contains a radioactive payload -- in this case, cesium extracted from radiological equipment that was stolen from a New Jersey hospital by a sleeper working there as a lab tech.
The initial blast kills only a few dozen people, but radiation is quickly dispersed by the prevailing winds. Minutes after the explosion, New York City Police officers arrive -- still unaware of the real nature of the blast. But when a radiation detector in one officer's car goes wild, it becomes clear that a dirty bomb has detonated in the financial center of America's biggest city.
Word of the explosion reverberates throughout New York. Many residents panic -- despite assurances from the mayor and police chief that contamination levels would exceed government limits only in about 40 city blocks. And by 3 p.m., half of Manhattan has tried to leave, clogging trains, highways, and bridges.
Six months later, the financial district remains largely off-limits, and the local economy is limping along amid a cratering of business confidence, the collapse of the tourism industry, and a property market in free fall. Economists put the eventual economic losses at an astronomical $1 trillion.
If that all-too-plausible attack happened tomorrow, would New York be ready? The good news is that since September 11 the city has been preparing and drilling for a range of terror threats, including a dirty bomb. In April, New York clarified the roles of city agencies during a disaster. Under the plan, police would be the commanders at the scene, but fire personnel would be involved in tackling any biological, radiological, or chemical attack, and the city's department of health would establish the size of the contaminated zone. "New York City knows how to deal with a [dirty bomb] better than any other city in the country," says former Police Commissioner Howard Safir.
Maybe so, but there's still a lot of work to be done -- ranging from developing a coordinated response with neighboring states to educating the public on what to do in the event of such an attack. Says Stephen E. Flynn, a homeland security expert and author of America the Vulnerable: "New York isn't prepared" for a radiological attack.
One of the first challenges for the police and fire departments would be decontaminating people. That would require setting up decon centers and persuading people to strip naked and submit to a brutal shower from a fire hose. Charles Ferguson, an adviser to the city, says New York claims it can handle the decontamination of thousands of people an hour but actually has a "very limited capacity."
What's more, regional hospitals and emergency services have received a pittance from the Feds to help them prepare for a dirty bomb or other attack, say experts. Scot Phelps, who oversees the masters program in disaster management at Metropolitan College of New York City, says most hospitals receive less than $75,000 per year, when they need three times as much. He reckons EMS has received less than 4% of terrorist funding. With most ambulance staffers receiving less than four hours of training in dealing with a radiological attack, he believes fewer than 25 New York City ambulances would be sufficiently equipped or trained to respond effectively to a dirty bomb.
And while New York is coordinating with regional government, it needs to do a better job, especially with New Jersey, where many people would flee during an attack. Rick McDonnell, an assistant supervisor with the New Jersey State Exercise Support Team, which coordinates emergency management exercises, says: "You are talking about sending thousands of New Yorkers into the most densely populated state in the country." McDonnell says plans for such an event are still being formulated and expects a major exercise to be conducted in the coming months, once the details -- ranging from traffic control to emergency shelters to communications -- are worked out.
Even if New York had unlimited resources to throw at the problem, victims and medical personnel still might not respond appropriately. One recent survey found that just 57% of health-care workers in the region would report for work during a radiological event. Another found only three-fifths of the population would remain indoors if told to do so -- potentially exposing them to radiation and putting more pressure on hospitals.
It all sounds pretty dire. Still, there is more New York can do to get ahead of the threat. If there's one thing that all experts agree on, it's that the city should fund a public education campaign, giving residents a crash course in the risks of a dirty bomb attack and what they should do to avoid contamination. "This depends on having a real adult conversation with the public, and that hasn't been done," says Flynn. "This could make the difference between tens of lives or tens of thousands." In the wake of Katrina, that seems eminently sensible.
So what are we to make of these three apocalyptic scenarios? It would be easy to throw up our hands in despair. The magnitude of the catastrophes is so huge and our ability to take meaningful steps to mitigate the dangers seems, at first glance, minuscule. But that would be a great mistake. If the nightmare of Katrina has taught us anything it is that, to some extent, at least, our fate is in our own hands. We will never, of course, live in a risk-free society. But the tragedy of Katrina now affords us a rare opportunity to rethink the nation's approach to preparing for both natural disasters and the threat of terrorism.
Money isn't the issue. The resources can be found to improve our communications, build more hospitals and produce greater stockpiles of critical medicines and vaccines. And indeed it will be less costly to prepare than to suffer the human and financial costs of unpreparedness. The biggest challenge will be mustering the political will to set priorities and establish clear chains of command. If leaders in Washington and state governments can do that, there's much we can accomplish and reason for hope.
By Spencer E. Ante in New York and Amy Barrett in Philadelphia, with Paul Magnusson in Washington