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All Quiet in L.A. as Disaster Centers Display Readiness

City and county emergency teams demonstrate their preparedness under officials' watchful eyes.

March 21, 2003|Patrick McGreevy and Sue Fox | Times Staff Writers

On the first full day of war in Iraq, Los Angeles city officials gathered Thursday in a bunker-like command center deep beneath City Hall East, on high alert for terrorism.

Surrounded by dozens of televisions and computer terminals, they tracked each blip in public safety, at the ready to respond with state and federal counterparts to protect lives, roads, airports and water supplies. A similar county emergency center also prepared for the worst.

But peace prevailed at home, and the region's emergency apparatus idled on standby. Instead of responding to disaster, the centers became staging areas aimed at calming public nerves in the face of what could be a long and uncertain wait.

"No news is good news," Mayor James K. Hahn said as he emerged from a midmorning briefing at the city center, announcing -- as he would many times throughout the day -- that there were no specific threats against Los Angeles.

In fact, officials from the city, county and state spent much of Thursday monitoring their respective fiefdoms, then gathering to announce an all-clear and reiterate their preparedness.

Hahn started Thursday with a helicopter tour of Los Angeles' water and power facilities. After landing in Sylmar, he and Department of Water and Power chief David Wiggs said the city constantly tests for contaminants and could easily isolate a problem because the water supply is so large.

Extra security has been extended to the DWP's scattered power plants as well as 10,000 miles of transmission lines and 7,000 miles of water pipes, Wiggs said.

Hahn later joined a lengthy meeting with Gov. Gray Davis, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, Sheriff Lee Baca, California Highway Patrol Commissioner Spike Helmick and FBI Assistant Director Ron Iden.

They said they agreed to increase security at Los Angeles International Airport and the Vincent Thomas Bridge in the harbor area. The Highway Patrol -- whose 7,500 officers have been placed on 12-hour shifts -- also sent additional personnel to secure the state's nuclear power plants and a number of gas-powered plants.

"We've had contingency plans in the works for nearly 18 months. We are putting those plans into place," the governor said after the meeting. "There are no guarantees in life, but Californians are clearly much safer today than they were on Sept. 10, 2001."

Meanwhile, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach opened a new 24-hour Joint Operations Center on Thursday evening. Based at the Coast Guard headquarters, it includes representatives of nine key agencies -- ranging from the FBI to the Long Beach Police Department.

Despite frequent announcements, activity throughout the city and county emergency response system remained slow and steady.

Built during the Cold War, when possible nuclear attack was a concern, the city's Emergency Operations Center is fitted with thick metal doors designed to withstand an atomic blast.

It has its own ventilation system as well as backup power and telephone systems. Built to accommodate 200 city workers, it has had a bare-bones staff of 20 since war began.

The center was powered into high gear for such events as the 1992 L.A. riots and 1994 Northridge earthquake. Then, officials coordinated responses to closed hospitals, buckled roads, shuttered airports, nonoperating sewage plants, busted gas lines and widespread injuries.

On Thursday, however, it remained a place to watch and listen. Even a bomb threat that forced the evacuation of parts of City Hall and the Criminal Courts Building did not mobilize the center.

As officials began a routine 8 a.m. briefing in the Emergency Operations Center, they were quietly informed of the bomb threat, then notified later that it had been handled. No bomb was found.

"Streets reopened, the buildings reopened, and the person was held in custody for the Secret Service," said Los Angeles Police Lt. Horace Frank, who was told that the suspect had made threats against President Bush. "They would have done that anyway."

The biggest stir came Wednesday night, when mayoral spokeswoman Julie Wong left popcorn in a microwave. Moments later, as she conferred with reporters, a police officer approached her.

"Ma'am, did you pop some popcorn?" he asked sternly.

When she admitted she had, he pointed to smoke billowing from the kitchen. Plenty of fire officials were on hand to clear the smoke.

Los Angeles County's Emergency Operations Center east of downtown Los Angeles, meanwhile, was even more sedate. With all calm in the Southland, it served as a forum for a receiving line of officials.

Sheriff Baca appeared with nearly two dozen other county officials and the FBI's Iden to allay concerns over a shortage of gas masks and protective suits for his deputies. More equipment will be delivered soon, he said. In the meantime, strong tactical planning and cooperation with other agencies would ensure a swift and effective response to terrorism.

About 400 sheriff's deputies, firefighters, health workers and other emergency staff were placed on 24-hour alert Tuesday, reachable by phone or pager. When war began Wednesday night, only a skeleton crew watched news updates on three of the center's six-foot screens. Then they flipped one to Fox's "American Idol," creating an odd triptych.

Built in 1995, the center was activated during the Democratic National Convention in 2000, and was ready to respond after the Sept. 11 attacks. But it has yet to see a major disaster.

"We're getting telephone calls from staff, saying, 'Should I come in?'" said Lee Sapaden, a center spokesman. "I tell them, 'Sure, you can come in, but nothing's going on.' "

*

Times staff writers Ken Reich, Deborah Schoch, Andrew Blankstein, Matea Gold and Lee Romney contributed to this report.

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