By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
Vendors at this week's homeland security convention have the answer for any catastrophe. They will sell you body armor, vehicle barriers, nuclear detectors, manhole-cover locks, unmanned helicopters -- and Kyrgyz yurts.
After Hurricane Katrina destroyed thousands of homes, the good people of Kyrgyzstan saw a business opportunity. So the embassy rented a booth at the Washington Convention Center and got Kyrgyz officials on the program as speakers and hosts of the Homeland and Global Security Summit. This allowed the embassy to erect a yurt, the traditional nomadic tent of Central Asia, and offer it as a housing solution for the Gulf Coast.
"After Katrina, people really need some temporary houses," explained the Kyrgyz Embassy's Saltanat Tashmatova, at the front door of the yurt. A brochure says the 14-foot-high structure, made from sheep's wool and "cool in summer," sells for $10,000 -- but the floor model can be had for $7,000. Any sales yet? "We just started," Tashmatova said with a shrug.
Give it time, Kyrgyzstan: There's enough money for everybody in the homeland security budget. The host of the convention, Equity International, boasts that "more than $150 billion" will be spent this year to thwart terrorism and respond to natural disasters. Equity International promises attendees "valuable networking opportunities" and "the right contacts" to get a piece of the action.
The program lists high-level speakers from the Department of Homeland Security and the military, and the list of participants includes the departments of State, Energy, Agriculture, Transportation, Justice, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development; a bunch of embassies; and every law enforcement agency from the Secret Service to the Loudoun County sheriff. And they all seem to be flush with cash.
"We're going to spend money!" George Foresman, the homeland undersecretary for preparedness, said when asked at a session yesterday about his "budget priorities."
"Well, good!" responded the moderator.
Foresman elaborated on his little quip: "We're making sure we push the dollars out the door under a consolidated approach."
Maj. Gen. Bruce Davis of the U.S. Northern Command was also reassuring. "The funding priority is going to continue as it has in the past," he said.
An audience member said he was concerned that security grants would shift from rural to urban areas. "We're not talking about an either/or equation; we're talking about an and approach," Foresman answered. He promised: "Nobody's going to get left behind."
That's easy to believe. After the session, Foresman stopped at the booth of Hanson, a company that paid $10,000 for a sponsorship and is promoting wind-resistant building materials. "What winds will it withstand?" he inquired. A representative handed him a brochure. "I'm headed down there Friday," Foresman said. "Give me a business card. I'll make sure they call you." That was $10,000 well spent.
"The projections are unreal," Hanson spokesman Adrian King said after Foresman left. "It is huge."
Dozens of exhibitors vied for their place in the homeland security industrial complex: guard booths. Tactical antennas. Flood vents. Evacuation suits. The "German pavilion" promised "Safe and Sound with German Technologies." A Dutch pavilion had orange tulips and pictures of windmills. A Russian pavilion offered "safe" nuclear fuel.
"We went from a small company to a large company overnight," marveled Robert Smith at the Nasatka Barriers booth, where a video shows a truck losing a battle with a barrier.
Nearby, a Talon Robot was moving around with a mock pipe bomb in its claw. "In the last 18 months to two years, production skyrocketed," said Jason Wagner.
The booth offering Stabiloc manhole-cover locks reported interest from the Pentagon and various embassies. Even John Ritzenthaler, the guy selling prisoner-made office furniture, saw an opportunity at DHS. "There's a lot of growth in that particular agency," he said.
The government officials were happy to encourage the entrepreneurs. "We're asking industry to come to the table with us," Kevin Stevens, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official, said at a workshop. "Help us transform the way we do business."
Across the exhibition floor, Alex Martinez was doing his best to help. Until a few years ago, his company, Coptervision, rented out remote-controlled helicopters to Hollywood studios for aerial shots in movies. But since 9/11, governments have been demanding his choppers, which start at $75,000. "It's a life-changing event," Martinez said.
For the federal government, this life change has added tens of billions of dollars to the deficit. For industry, it has added a similar amount to revenue -- and executives can hardly believe their luck. At the booth offering "LifeShirts" to monitor the vital signs of first responders and U.S. troops, CEO Andrew Behar said his products were originally used for drug trials.
And now? "We just deployed our first 50 with the Air Force," he reported. "We've got back orders now. It's a new world."