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  Vol. 24, No. 5  Previous Table of Contents Home  Next March 15, 2002 

Homeland Security Director Visits Texas Medical Center


by RONDA WENDLER
Texas Medical Center News

In a recent visit to the Texas Medical Center, U.S. Homeland Security Director Gov. Tom Ridge said Houston is one of the best prepared cities in the nation to deal with a bioterrorist attack.

"As I’m looking around for examples of best practices, Houston is a good place to look," Ridge said of the city’s counter-terrorism activities. "Keep doing what you’re doing. You could serve as a model for cities throughout the nation."

President Bush appointed Ridge, a two-term governor of Pennsylvania, to develop a comprehensive strategy to protect the nation from terrorist attacks after the events of Sept. 11.

Ridge visited Houston Feb. 22 at the invitation of The University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston to attend a briefing where city, county and state officials discussed the recent counter-terrorism initiatives their offices have undertaken, and the funding needed to implement or sustain those efforts.

"We are grateful for the opportunity to brief Gov. Ridge on what the Houston community has done so far and to showcase Houston as a model city for collaborative homeland defense initiatives," said Dr. James T. Willerson, UT-Houston president.

Houston is especially vulnerable to a terrorist attack, Ridge noted, because it meets all nine of the FBI criteria that attract terrorists, including the fact that it is home to the port of Houston, the petrochemical industry, NASA, the Texas Medical Center, more than 70 consulates, a highly concentrated population, increased truck and rail traffic due to NAFTA, a major airport that bears the Bush name, and the nation’s oil industry headquarters.

But despite its obvious vulnerabilities, Ridge said Houston’s level of preparedness is among the highest in the nation.

He praised the city for being "forward-leaning" in its foresight to develop a preparedness plan in 1999, when the Houston Task Force on Terrorism was appointed by Mayor Lee Brown and a medical strike team was assembled to respond to medical emergencies resulting from nuclear, biological or chemical agents.

To date, Houston has taken a number of precautionary measures, including increasing security at airports, water plants, the Port of Houston and downtown high-rise buildings, said Mayor Brown. The mayor was among the government officials and bioterrorism experts who briefed Ridge about recent counter-terrorism initiatives their offices have recommended or implemented. Others included Dr. S. Ward Casscells, vice president of biotechnology at UT-Houston and organizer of the event; Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison; Harris County Judge Robert Eckels; Texas Commissioner of Health Dr. Eduardo Sanchez; and David Dewhurst, Texas land commissoner and chairman of the Governor’s Task Force on Homeland Security.

All emphasized the coordination taking place across jurisdictional boundaries and among local and state agencies.

Sen. Hutchison stressed that Houston is home to the largest medical complex in the world and the second largest petrochemical complex in the world.

"Can you imagine what an attack on Houston would do to the economy of our country? If our port of Houston and our refineries shut down, the nation’s economy would be crippled," Sen. Hutchison said.

Judge Eckels added that Harris county is the third most populated county in the nation, and that Harris county alone is more heavily populated than 24 of the 50 United States.

"This should be taken into account when the federal government allocates antiterrorism resources," he said.

A report that requests federal funding to prepare Houston for a terrorist event has been prepared by a special task force and submitted to Mayor Brown. The report is currently being reviewed in the mayor’s office.

"It features communication among all levels of government and other key emergency players; training for first-responders; cooperation and breaking down jurisdictional boundaries in sharing services and training of personnel; and securing facilities and borders, as well as labs where biological agents are housed," explained Dr. Casscells. "Terrorists are innovative. They are probing our security systems all the time. We must stay ahead of them with new software, new antibiotics and new antiviral shields," he said.

Texas Commissioner of Health Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, a graduate of the UT-Houston School of Public Health, said a bioterrorist attack by its very nature is a pubic health issue, and that local health departments, as well as the Texas Department of Health, will be major players in preparing for and protecting against potential attacks. Sanchez’s department was just awarded $59.7 million in 2002 federal funds to enhance its Health Alert Network and to help Texas hospitals prepare for bioterrorism. The funds were awarded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Health Resources and Services Administration.

Texas Land Commissioner David Dewhurst said Texas, known for its friendliness, will continue to be "friendly to tourists, but very unfriendly to terrorists." Gov. Perry appointed Dewhurst chairman of Texas’ task force on homeland security, which published its first report Jan. 31, complete with 44 recommendations for making Texas more secure.

"The problem is, these cost money. We need help from the federal government to keep Texas safe," Dewhurst said.

President Bush is proposing that funding from Ridge’s office for the 2003 fiscal year should include $3.5 billion to allot to cities for emergency workers and $6.9 billion for public health efforts. At the earliest, Ridge’s homeland security office is expected to divvy these funds up sometime between October and December, after the appropriations bill is signed.

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