AUGUSTA, Maine — Seven years after terrorists embarked from the Portland airport on their mission to fly into the World Trade Center, top federal and state officials say Maine is better prepared for a terrorist attack, but no one thinks it is fully ready.
“I think we are better prepared than we were,” Gov. John Baldacci said Tuesday. “Can you be totally prepared for every outcome? I don’t know. But we are certainly working to make sure nothing bad happens to our citizens.”
Baldacci kicked off National Preparedness Month in Maine at a training session held in the Emergency Operations Center at the Maine Emergency Management Agency. He urged Mainers to plan for any sort of disaster, man-made or natural, by creating their own individualized emergency supply kit and developing a plan of what they would do to cope with a disaster.
“We have to be ready year-round to take care of ourselves and our neighbors,” the governor said. “Preparedness is not just the people in this room.”
Baldacci said MEMA has developed a Web site, www.maineprepares.com, that has information on what a disaster plan should include and a checklist for developing a disaster preparedness kit.
In 2001, Art Cleaves was the director of MEMA, and he vividly remembers the harsh realization of how ill-prepared Maine — and the nation — had been in the hours and days after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I don’t think that any of us that lived through that day will ever forget where we were,” he said in an interview. “I remember being in the EOC [Emergency Operations Center] when Governor [Angus] King arrived and we were trying to figure out what was happening.”
Two of the terrorists, Mohamed Atta and his accomplice Abdulaziz Alomari, boarded a flight in Portland and made a connecting flight in Boston that crashed hours later into the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Officials now believe the two men flew out of Portland to avoid raising suspicions if all 10 hijackers arrived at Logan International Airport at the same time.
Cleaves said Sept. 11 revealed the most glaring problem that was found to exist across the country: First responders often could not talk to each other on their radios to coordinate a response.
“We saw it here as well,” he said. “Police and fire units that could not coordinate, state agencies that could not talk with their federal counterparts. But a lot has changed since then.”
Cleaves is now the Region One director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He said Maine and the other New England states have received millions of dollars in federal grants to upgrade communications and response capabilities.
“We certainly are better prepared than we were then, but we have more to do,” he said.
Cleaves said the challenge from terrorists is constantly evolving and that trying to pro-tect from an attack is difficult. He noted that while security at airports has been greatly improved, that is not true of other mass transit systems.
“That’s why we have what we call an all-hazards approach,” he said. “We plan on how to respond to a disaster whether it is a hurricane, an ice storm or a terrorist event.”
Rob McAleer, MEMA’s current director, said the state has used that planning model to train first responders across Maine in handling any disaster. For example, training to handle a chemical spill from a train or truck during a storm helps in preparing to handle a chemical or biological weapons attack by a terrorist group.
“We have shelters identified, we have agreements with the private sector for equipment we may need in a disaster, and access to supplies we might need,” he said.
McAleer said that while much progress has been made in communications, there are still some first responders in Maine who can’t talk with other first responders. He said not every agency has all the equipment it needs and not everyone has all the training he should.
He said supplies — such as cots and blankets — that are likely to be immediately needed in a disaster have been stockpiled. That was not the case seven years ago.
“What we need to do is get individuals and businesses and localities to do more to be ready,” McAleer said.
Maine got a $250,000 planning grant earlier this week to help businesses in areas flooded last spring to prepare for future disasters. Like many other states, Maine has not had many businesses establish disaster plans.
“I hope this will lead to other businesses realizing they need to be ready to recover,” Baldacci said. “We had a $5 million economic loss from the flooding, and I think planning ahead can reduce that in the future.”
Additional funds will be coming from the Economic Development Administration as part of a flood assistance package Congress approved earlier this year. Baldacci hopes the plans developed by businesses in the flood areas will be used by companies across the state as models.
The state also has set up a “fusion center” to share information with federal agencies and other states about possible terrorist activities. But, as with other fusion centers across the nation, there have been problems in sharing information and with “information overload” — or too much information.
Maine State Police Lt. William Snedeker, director of the fusion center, said that while the center gets hundreds of reports every year, few prove connected in any way to terrorism. He said that because criminal activity often overlaps with terrorist activity, an investigation that starts looking at one area ends up as the other in a state halfway across the country.
“It’s really an expansion of the old state police criminal intelligence unit we had before 9-11,” he said of the fusion center.
Maj. General Bill Libby, the governor’s homeland security adviser and the leader of the Maine National Guard, said the fusion centers across the country are critical to national security. He points to the 9-11 Commission Report of the bungling of intelligence information before the 2001 terrorist attacks.
“We missed so many opportunities because so many agencies had information and didn’t share it,” he said.
McAleer said MEMA continues to plan for a hurricane, ice storm or terrorist attack that it hopes will not happen. He said he is convinced the state is better prepared to handle whatever may happen, but don’t ask him if the state is ready.
“I will never be satisfied that we have done all we can to be ready,” he said. “There is always more to do.”