Ready for the Terrorists--or Not

Cash-strapped L.A. is struggling to protect a vast area

It was just a drill. But when "terrorists" struck Los Angeles International Airport after midnight on Jan. 28, communications quickly broke down. As L.A. and airport police battled five make-believe gunmen, scores of "wounded" bystanders lay helpless for nearly 30 minutes while a communications snafu failed to alert medical personnel waiting outside that the coast was clear to enter. "Some significant things went wrong," admits John Miller, the Los Angeles Police Dept.'s top anti-terrorism official. "The good news is that we can learn from them."

The drill, code-named Operation Nighthawk, shows that even as an anxious nation prepares for war and the prospect of terrorist reprisals, the struggle to bolster homeland security remains far from complete. The size and sprawl of Los Angeles present particular challenges, but the slow progress is common in much of the country.

Since the September 11 attacks, L.A. has spent nearly $200 million beefing up security at its airport and shipping port, as well as upgrading police, fire, and health departments. Yet many believe it is nearly as vulnerable now as it was 17 months ago. "L.A. is as unprepared as any city in the U.S.," says City Councilman Jack Weiss.

Enter Miller. A former TV reporter and author of a book about terrorism, Miller was tapped two months ago by L.A. Police Chief William Bratton. The two go back to 1994, when Bratton was New York City's police commissioner and Miller was one of his deputy commissioners.

Miller has a good running start. L.A.'s emergency response system, honed after years of earthquakes and the 1992 race riots, is considered among the nation's best. Since September 11, Los Angeles has moved fast to beef up its security efforts. Roughly $94 million has gone into LAX, which the California Attorney General has singled out as the most vulnerable spot in the state. Some 1,200 surveillance cameras have been installed inside the terminal, and motion sensors now protect its eight miles of fences. The city also spent $10 million at the L.A. port for added security officers, while an additional $132 million will go toward safeguarding the city's water and power supplies with full-time guards, helicopter patrols, and increased daily sampling of the water. And the region's Terrorism Early Warning Group, which is operated by the L.A. Sheriff's Dept. and includes the LAPD and the FBI, has been copied by other cities.

Still, critics contend that L.A. doesn't have nearly enough resources. Its 10,000-member fire and police forces are overmatched in a city of 4 million spread out over 467 square miles. And although L.A. has tried to develop response plans for each of 549 high-risk sites -- including Dodger Stadium, several movie studios, and dozens of synagogues -- a lack of manpower means terrorists could hit any of those sites.

Not every program has gone smoothly, either. County health officials, who are updating their bioterrorism program with a $24.6 million federal grant, have battled with unions worried about the health risks of vaccinations. That has resulted in vaccines for staff at only five of the county's 82 hospitals.

With budget cuts looming, L.A. officials are pressing the federal government to give it more of the $3.5 billion in homeland security funds earmarked for cities. The L.A. port needs $25 million more to upgrade its ability to monitor cargo for radioactive matter, while the police and fire departments could use a common communications system. The city also wants the feds to pay more than $70 million in overtime that it has incurred since September 11 and has identified 160 separate anti-terror projects totaling $130 million. "So far, all we're getting is a lot of talk and a hearty handshake," says Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn.

The hefty costs have left L.A. scrambling to improve its ability to respond to the unthinkable, especially with such high-profile events as the Oscars coming up. From movie stars to just plain folks, residents are hoping the beefed-up efforts will be enough to keep the City of Angels one step ahead of the bad guys.

By Ronald Grover in Los Angeles

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