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City by city, terror war goes local

From Baltimore to Tampa, Fla., mayors rush to implement disaster-alert plans.

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In Charleston, S.C., all water-utility workers - including private plumbers laying pipe for the city - now have to carry special ID cards.

In Tampa, Fla., fans attending Buccaneer football games are searched for a variety of contraband, including banners with sticks and diaper bags.

As part of a new "biosurveillance" regimen in Baltimore, city officials daily monitor absentee rates in schools, on the lookout for spikes that might suggest a bacteria attack.

From Savannah to Sacramento, American cities are now in a perpetual state of Code Red, preparing for - and hoping to prevent - a possible terrorist attack.

Gone are many of the usual issues that dominate urban agendas - crime, homelessness, the need for a tougher pooper-scooper law. Instead, cities are focused on one issue, security, perhaps more than at any time in American history.

The three-alarm attention is certainly understandable. Until Sept. 11, most cities had some kind of emergency-response plans in place. But they were often for hurricanes or industrial accidents or some other more conventional calamity. Few, if any, were prepared for the kind of biological, chemical, or other evil deed that terrorists might devise. Consequently, cities are rushing to fill in gaps in readiness: training doctors, streamlining communication between health workers and police, stockpiling antibiotics and vaccines, buying gas masks and moon suits.

"If you watched what happened in Washington, D.C., last week, even the nation's capital can't make sure that the city's postal workers are safe," says Cameron Whitman, a policy director at the National League of Cities (NLC). "That's partly because nobody's really ready."

At the same time, if the World Trade Center attacks reinforced one lesson, it's that cities are the first line of defense and response in most any disaster.

"If we waited for advice from Washington on self-defense, we'd all still be singing 'God Save the Queen,' " says Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. "We just went ahead with the smart people we have here and did what was the only responsible thing to do."

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