September 11, 2001 : Attack on America
Statement of Steven L. Abrams Before the Committee on Judiciary, Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism and Government Information; November 6, 2001

Mayor Steven L. Abrams
City of Boca Raton, Florida

November 6, 2001

Thank you, Madam Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee. My name is Steven Abrams, the Mayor of Boca Raton, Florida.

Unfortunately, Boca Raton was the first city in America to have to deal with a bioterrorism incident. I appreciate this timely opportunity to share the lessons that we learned to help other cities that are facing this challenge now and that may face it in the future.

Those who attacked the American Media, Inc. building in Boca Raton with anthrax could not have picked a safer city. Boca Raton has always had an international reputation as a safe and secure city. In fact, we are an even safer and more secure city in the aftermath of this incident.

Our Fire-Rescue Department's hazardous materials team has won international competitions. Our Police Department is outstanding. They responded in exemplary fashion to the anthrax incident.

But we could not do it alone. I want to thank the federal, state, and county agencies that assisted us. Our Governor, Jeb Bush, was there for us. In addition, I want to thank Senator Nelson, who also came to Boca Raton and offered the city his assistance.

Madam Chairman, the assistance that cities need is in establishing and maintaining effective lines of communication with all of the different agencies.

The President has stated on more than one occasion since September 11 that cities are the first line of defense against terrorist threats.

City officials are also the first point of contact for our residents who are understandably worried about the potential health and criminal threats posed by bioterrorism.

But reliable information was frequently lacking. In fact, I was surprised to hear that even the Mayor of New York had the same concerns. Anything that would affect the safety and security of the people of the city I need to know, and I need to know it now.

The division of responsibilities among the agencies themselves also proved to a problem early on. I hasten to add the caveat that all of us were covering new ground here. But the Subcommittee has asked us to illustrate the gaps for future planning purposes.

Our police chief was first notified by the F.B.I. that the AMI building would be tested for anthrax on the Friday after the case was revealed concerning Robert Stevens, the AMI employee who eventually died. But then that Sunday, the chairman of the Palm Beach County Commission was the one who contacted the city on behalf of the county health department (which to add to the confusion happens to be a state agency) to advise that the anthrax was discovered in the building and that the city would be involved in securing the site (and later decontaminating the investigators). The responsibility had shifted between the criminal and the public health sides of the investigation.

Then the following Tuesday night, I watched on television, by pure chance, a national press conference being held in Boca Raton to announce that the third person in America had been exposed to anthrax and that the incident was now being handled as a criminal investigation.

I rushed over to the hotel and met face to face in the lobby with the Acting U.S. Attorney and the F.B.I.'s Special Agent in Charge to let them know in plain terms the necessity for better communications between their agencies and the city. To their credit, they have kept the city much better informed about the case from their side of it.

We don't need to know when ground troops are going into Afghanistan, but we do need to be aware of information that affects the health and safety of our residents, as well as know about developments that will have a bearing on city operations.

It behooves the agencies to do this, Senators. The local governments understand that the federal agencies are leading the investigation. However, making cities an integral and timely part of the information loop will go a long way toward helping us to reassure the public that the utmost is being done by the agencies to protect our constituents, as well as toward dispelling misinformation that might hinder the investigation.

I will give you another illustration. When the anthrax trail led to the two post office facilities in Boca Raton, the lack of close coordination persisted.

Our city manager, police chief, and I spent an entire morning trying to track down rumors that one or more of our post offices were contaminated and going to be shut down. This was significant for us because one of the postal facilities is not a stand-alone building, but is integrated into a low-rise office building housing some 4,000 employees of several private companies. We did not know if they were going to have to be evacuated or tested. Even if they were not going to be evacuated, we did not know what their reactions would be. We needed to determine what our response would be.

Remember, these were the very first post offices to be contaminated in the United States, and so we were in uncharted waters.

The F.B.I. and Center for Disease Control were helpful in responding to our telephone calls for confirmation of reports we were hearing secondhand. But this is simply not adequate. Indeed, public statements were being made by members of our congressional delegation that communication with local governments and residents was insufficient.

Mayors are the ones on the front lines—literally. We are standing next to the crime scene tape that is cordoning off the site. We are surrounded by the camped-out national media. Because of this, local officials can build up a level of trust and confidence with the media and their viewers and readers. It would have been easy for me to join in the chorus of criticism, but I refrained. I want to join hands, not point fingers.

So, for instance, even though I went inside the perimeter of the AMI building to speak with our police officers and firefighters and into one of the decontaminated postal facilities to answer questions from worried workers, I will not get tested for anthrax nor take antibiotics. I believe it is important for me as an elected official to show confidence in the assurances given by our public health officials.

But please help give me a full measure of confidence, Senators. There are improvements that can be made to the system.

These are my recommendations:

Establish at the outset one agency--with one authoritative point person--to take responsibility for coordinating the investigation. This is a designation, or even a direct role, that could be determined by the new Office of Homeland Security. Admittedly, this is difficult to do in bioterrorism investigations that have both criminal and public health aspects, but it must be done.

Second, an affected city should be fully included in any joint command.

Third, a central information command should be set up so that all of the public information that is released by the various agencies is coordinated and comes from one source.

Finally, keep in mind that communications issues do not end when the television cameras leave. I have just written to the Postal Service to remind them that the city wants to know if further testing will be done at Boca Raton's postal facilities and to tell us when we can expect irradiation equipment to be installed to guard against a possible second wave.

The Environmental Protection Agency is now cleaning up the AMI site and will also have to be reminded that the City of Boca Raton should not have to read about their findings in the newspaper, that we need to be ahead of the curve to be able to calmly explain the results to a still-anxious public.

So these are examples of additional federal agencies that have been brought into the case as it has progressed that do not appear to be under any central command.

In closing, believe it or not, I just began a subscription to The National Enquirer, which is published by American Media, Inc., so I can keep up to date. When AMI felt that they themselves were being left out of the loop, they, as investigative writers, developed their own sources of information, which proved very reliable. I would speak with AMI officials and, lo and behold, the information they gave me would turn out exactly as they had recited. Similarly, I also was able to effectively develop my own backchannels of information.

But obviously this should not be the solution. I urge the Subcommittee to focus on the "government information" part of your name. Bioterrorism is terrible enough without the problem being compounded by the potential for a mistake or needless panic because local governments were lacking some piece of critical information.

Please know that my comments are meant to be constructive. These bioterrorist attacks are a completely novel situation for all of us, and indeed we were the first case. Dealing with bioterrorism is by definition a complex multi-jurisdictional effort. All of our law enforcement and public health professionals are working around the clock to protect our safety. We are grateful.

Thank you again, Madam Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, for the opportunity to be heard today.

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