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Personal Planning
Creating a Comfort Zone


There's something in the air -- the faint and persistent buzz of hazard. Some people are plainly scared. They've been told so often "it's not if but when" that images of terrorist attack pass through their minds every day. Some people seem untouched. They face the periodic and inscrutable announcements of threat with a mix of fatalism and defiance. But nobody doubts that they're living in a changed world.

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Main Personal Planning Page

After all, the unimaginable has already happened. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were so unlikely and -- let's face it -- so successful that large-scale death from terrorism on American soil is no longer just a theoretical possibility.

So what does one do with that feeling and that fact?

It's a good question. And a really hard one to answer.

What follows in these pages is our attempt to help you come up with a reasonable and livable stance against the threat of terrorism. We're most definitely not providing answers, let alone The Answer. But we're offering some building materials that may be useful in constructing the very personal edifice that is peace of mind.

What we're offering is information: facts about the kind of threats the government says may be out there; the damage each can wreak; relevant policies and guidelines; and the myriad things people can do, buy, learn or talk about, should they choose to plan for a terrorist event.

What we can't tell you is how likely an attack is, not to mention when, where and what kind might occur, and how many people could be killed, injured or inconvenienced. Don't expect anyone else to tell you, either. It's a lot easier to detonate a truck bomb than to aerosolize a virus, but no expert can confidently focus on the former and forget about the latter. The full range of threats are described in a chart on page 29.

The Department of Homeland Security's five-step, color-coded index of terrorism threat is a way to telegraph federal agencies, state governments and other large entities how aggressively they should pursue the labor-intensive efforts required for hypervigilance. Changes in the index don't mean much, in practical terms, to individual citizens. Nevertheless, people are seeking a way to gauge -- and address -- the threat to themselves and their families.

A good place to start is online, at three Web sites run by the federal government, which usefully lay out options without giving orders. They are www.ready.gov (run by the Department of Homeland Security); www.fema.gov (by the Federal Emergency Management Agency); and www.cdc.gov (by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). The information they provide can also be obtained by mail and, in some cases, by phone. There are dozens and dozens of other sites -- government, academic, commercial, ideological -- providing advice about how to prepare for terrorist events.

Much of it falls into a category of what might be called "informed common sense."

For example, walls and roofs are pretty good barriers against mists, dusts and most forms of radiation. Filters that don't keep out things smaller than 10 microns aren't likely to be extremely useful against biological aerosols (like the one used in the Capitol Hill anthrax attacks) with particles of 1.5 to 3 microns. Wind dilutes as well as spreads airborne contaminants, so the heavier the breeze, the more quickly an area becomes safe to move around in.

Basic provisioning of the home is a similarly sensible issue, despite the lampooning it's gotten recently. Who can argue with a couple of days of food and water, a radio with spare batteries, and good maps in all the cars? These are measures that people living on hurricane-prone coasts have taken for granted for years.

While the government has advocated taking certain protective measures, many people have thought about things and chosen to do nothing. The probability that a person will be harmed or killed by a terrorist event is extremely low, by any credible estimation. This is true even for people living in and around Washington, a plausible high-priority target for terrorists.

What's the risk of some unlikely non-terrorist events? The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis (www.hcra.harvard.edu) has calculated some. The chance of dying in a motor-vehicle accident is 1 in 6,745; in a fire, 1 in 82,977; on a bicycle, 1 in 376,165; by a lightning strike, 1 in 4,468,159. Death by terrorism is less likely than any of these.

The risk of dying in a terrorist attack depends mostly on proximity -- how close a person is to the hazard in question, be it a bomb, a gas cloud or a powder-filled envelope. And being close is largely a matter of luck. It's hard to think of a way to reduce your chances of being in the wrong place at the wrong time without retreating from normal life altogether.

The record of terrorism suggests that -- except in cases where an attack is mounted in a confined space such as a bus -- fatally bad luck is relatively uncommon. In the World Trade Center attacks, 2,801 people were killed but about 15,000 people escaped the buildings. That's out of about 368,000 people who were working in Lower Manhattan at the time. Five people died in the anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001. Nobody knows how many people were exposed to the bacteria, but it was at least hundreds. When cultists released sarin nerve agent on three Tokyo subway lines in 1995 -- trains ridden by hundreds of thousands of passengers -- 5,500 riders received medical treatment. Twelve died.

The long-term effects on survivors also may not be as dire as many assume. The Japanese and American governments have been tracking the health of 86,572 people who received significant radiation exposure from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic-bomb blasts. From 1950 through 1990, there were approximately 420 excess cancer deaths in this group attributable to radiation exposure. That's about 7 percent of all cancer deaths experienced by the exposed survivors.

Of course, planning for terrorism can become a disabling obsession. It's worth noting that many people with full-blown anxiety disorders believe that the more horrible an event is, the more likely it is to happen. They also believe that thinking about a feared event will somehow reduce its chances of happening. Neither belief is true.

One last thing bears keeping in mind. There are limits to "expertise" on the subject of how to avoid unseen and unpredictable health hazards. American history is instructive.

Between 1870 and 1920, the new science of bacteriology transformed the understanding of infectious disease. Scientists embraced the idea that many diseases are caused by distinct, transmissable microorganisms. This rapidly led physicians and public officials to offer advice to American citizens on how to avoid bacterial depredation in the home. They instructed housewives to scrub floors with hot water and lye, dust furniture, regularly wash curtains and walls, boil clothes and bed linen -- all in an effort to rid living spaces of microbe-laden dusts.

The problem was the new insight was only half-right. While there is a connection between hygiene and disease -- and changes in domestic practices undoubtedly prevented some infections -- scientists now know that dust and "contaminated" furnishings play almost no role in disease transmission. The backbreaking labor of a generation of women, many living in dwellings that didn't even have running water, was mostly a waste of time.

Insights into preparedness are emerging in our time. They, too, reflect much that is true about the world. But the usefulness of the information available in the marketplace or on the Internet -- even from reputable sources -- is unproved. The best advice may turn out to be lifesaving, but it may also turn out to induce needless effort, anguish and guilt.

In the end, it may be that the most obvious benefit of having a personal disaster plan is that it helps us push aside the nerve-racking subject of terrorism and get on with our lives and work. That's not a bad reason to have one.

-- David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer