City Cranks Up Its Big Bunker For High Alert

With New York City on a war footing, some of the most important contingency planning is going on in a squat, nondescript brick warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront, directly under the Brooklyn Bridge. This is the city’s emergency command center, otherwise known as “the bunker,” which is meant to coordinate the city’s response to disasters of the natural and man-made varieties.

In the pre–Sept. 11 world, the men and women who staffed the Office of Emergency Management, which runs the command center, tended to worry about prosaic disasters like blizzards and even earthquakes (there’s a fault line on 14th Street). But now officials worry about things like dirty bombs and hijacked jets. And in recent months, with memories of the Twin Tower attacks vivid and war in Iraq looming, officials have quietly undertaken a number of new initiatives that will leave the city better prepared to respond to terrorist attacks or retaliatory strikes-such as chemical and biological attacks, suicide bombings or, most horrifically, another Sept. 11–style attack.

City officials have added at least a dozen new officials to the command center’s in-house staff who specialize in medical responses to chemical and biological attacks. They have fine-tuned and expanded plans to deliver huge amounts of medical supplies to sites of disasters-supplies that are prepacked at secret locations and are ready to go. They have set up warehouses at undisclosed locations throughout the city and stocked them with cots, medical supplies and Army food kits.

“With these types of attacks, we had to adjust our mode of mass-treating people,” John Odermatt, the commissioner of the Office of Emergency Management, told The Observer . “We have the ability to get masses of people medical supplies within an hour. The supplies are packed and ready to go. And we stock supplies at undisclosed locations around the city.”

The city has also drawn up secret evacuation plans that could involve using everything from city subways and buses to Metro-North trains to move masses of people out of devastated areas, Mr. Odermatt said.

“If there is a large evacuation, we clearly will have a coordinating role,” he said. “We have [methods of transportation] pre-identified in a logistical plan. There are templates for evacuation, with standardized routes.” He declined to identify the exact routes.

Memories of Sept. 11, combined with the looming war, have created a sense that New York is the homeland’s front line in the war with Iraq. And so officials are taking all sorts of new steps to fend off terrorist attacks and to refine the city’s response to them. The Police Department has, since Sept. 11, created an aggressive anti-terrorism arm that includes everything from officers staged overseas to the creation of a new post, deputy commissioner of intelligence, which has been filled by a reclusive former C.I.A. spook named David Cohen. More recently, the police unveiled Operation Atlas, a $5-million-per-week plan to protect the city with combat jets overhead and elite police teams that will stand guard over vulnerable points like bridges, tunnels, hotels and churches.

A Visible Target

“New York has to be at the top of the scale in terms of preparation, because it’s logically the most visible target, along with Washington as the second,” said Robert McCrie, a department chair at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “The people in law enforcement have made a reasonable adjustment to the way circumstances have changed from 18 months ago.”

Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has undertaken war-room drills in which he practices responses to all sorts of attacks, including dirty bombs and even nuclear attack. And his aides have been trying to determine the most effective public posture he should adopt during the war. Mr. Bloomberg, who rides the subway to work, has made a point of telling New Yorkers that they should leave safety in the hands of the professionals and go about their business, an apparent effort to prevent fear from paralyzing the city and its economy. His advisers say he is likely during wartime to refrain from daily press conferences on safety questions, instead preferring to weigh in when he senses that public anxiety is on the rise.

“He doesn’t do press conferences for the sake of doing press conferences,” said Ed Skyler, the Mayor’s press secretary. “But if he feels the public needs reassurance, he’ll be the first one to go in front of the cameras.”

Then there’s the question of the city’s ability to respond to disasters, which has posed a political dilemma for city officials. In its current state, the command center is fully prepared to respond to disasters, but it’s not on full alert, which entails dozens of officials from just about every agency manning the center’s computers around the clock. The center tends to be fully activated when disaster strikes, such as a blizzard or during the recent explosion of a barge off Staten Island. Officials considered placing the command center on full alert for an undetermined period during the war rather than wait for a disaster to strike. But they put that plan on hold, according to a senior Bloomberg administration official, because such an act might frighten the public rather than reassure it.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” the senior official said. “It’s between doing everything you can to protect the public without scaring them at the same time.”

This is not to say that the command center isn’t ready for war-related disasters. City officials are careful to describe their approach as an “all-hazard” approach, which means that they work on plans that can be applied not just to terrorist attacks, but all kinds of disasters. Still, it seems clear that their focus has shifted in recent months with the threat of war in Iraq. The hiring of new staff members who specialize in treating chemical and biological attacks, the stockpiling of special medicines and, to a lesser extent, the new evacuation plans are clearly efforts to be ready for the worst man-made disasters imaginable. Other plans reportedly include vaccination centers in the event of smallpox or other bioterror attacks, as well as the stockpiling of antiradiation pills and Cipro, an antibiotic used for anthrax.

“We face new challenges,” Mr. Odermatt said. “We have to be able to step up to the plate and meet them.”