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When Disaster Strikes, This Guy's Out of There

August 02, 2003|J.R. Callahan | J.R. Callahan is a contractor in Southern California.

Nearly two years after 9/11, where's all the security that we keep hearing about?

I work as a contractor at a military base in Southern California, but it would be inappropriate to tell you which one because I'm about to disclose a secret. Now please put down the phone, and don't bother Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge. Nothing I'm about to reveal is classified. Yet I have stumbled upon something stranger than the Roswell crash.

The cluster of buildings where I have worked for the last two years is old and subject to frequent electrical failures and strange odors. Since my day often starts before dawn, it can be a spooky place, and it was especially so in the days after 9/11. Hardened contractors may scoff, but as a newcomer to this work environment I found that the bomb scares, restricted access and evacuations all contributed to a sense of vulnerability.

The vehicle searches seemed like a good idea -- until one morning when I arrived at the base with a shotgun in my truck and the guard didn't see it. (I had spent the weekend moving and forgot that the gun was there.)

And so I coped by telling myself that these buildings were only a front for something far more sophisticated, something that would keep employees safe. So what if the doors were secured with ever-changing combination locks while the ground-floor windows stood open day and night?

Then one day, about a year and a half after 9/11, our building was one of those selected to receive a drum of unspecified disaster-preparedness equipment. Safe at last, I thought, admiring the container as it was moved down the hall and came to rest beside the men's washroom.

The disaster barrel was large and white. Nobody told the contractors what was in it, or who was authorized to use it. But it seemed reasonable to suppose that it contained water, food, flashlights and a two-way radio; major first-aid supplies; rescue equipment such as a pry bar and shovel; and, for more esoteric emergencies, perhaps a chemical/biological agent detector, antibiotics and potassium iodide.

In that white barrel, I thought, were the hopes of a nation, the new line in the sand, the long-awaited proof that Americans on the job were not helpless before invisible armies. And so, like Pandora circling the drain of hell, I finally raised the lid.

Inside I found 24 meals-ready-to-eat, two blankets and a quantity of garbage that someone had thrown in by mistake. I returned to my office and drew the blinds. But a later peek in the barrel was more reassuring. We now have a flashlight and batteries. One blanket has vanished, but other items have replaced it: foam cups, but still no water; matches, but no candles or other fuel; a can opener, but no cans; chewing gum, perhaps to caulk the windows in case of a chemical attack; and a small wrench.

I've got a good job, but if we ever have a disaster, I'm going home.

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