Experts: Minnesota not prepared for attacks

The state’s health and safety departments need equipment, training and facilities, officials said.

by Libby George

Minnesotans stocking up on duct tape and bottled water are not as safe as they think, a panel of experts told Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton on Saturday morning.

“I can think of five scenarios right now that could bring down the state of Minnesota,” said Michael Osterholm, director for the University’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

The panel, which included Department of Public Safety Commissioner Rich Stanek, Hennepin County Sheriff Pat McGowan and Minnesota U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger, told Dayton that Minnesota’s health and safety departments need better equipment, training and facilities to be fully prepared for an attack.

Stanek was more optimistic about Minnesota’s safety but had concerns about the budget.

“I believe Minnesota to be safe, and we are working together to keep it that way,” Stanek said, adding that the 15 percent funding cuts his department received will hinder its ability to respond.

Stanek said state departments have been working together to prepare for terror attacks, but he said they need money for training and supplies.

McGowan also said Minnesotans need to consistently fund safety departments because “there are always people out there that want to hurt us” and preparedness is not a short-term consideration.

“Americans are great sprinters, but they’re not marathon runners,” McGowan said. “We’ve got to be marathon runners.” Osterholm said financial troubles are also “cutting out the legs” from state health departments. He said impending tuition increases at the University Medical School – which will make it the most expensive public medical school in the country – will lead to a shortage of doctors in Minnesota in the near future. Applications are down 40 percent this year, he said.

Dr. R.J. Frascone, medical director of Regions Hospital’s Emergency Medical Services, said current budget cuts could cause a “domino effect” of hospital closings that would jeopardize readiness for biological attacks.

He said the budget is so tight, metropolitan hospitals cannot find funding for a planned May terror attack drill.

“I find it odd that we are going under these threats when we are almost certainly going to war,” Frascone said.

He told Dayton this funding is essential and has to come from somewhere.

“If the states and the counties are not going to fund these issues, the federal government is going to have to step up,” Frascone said.

Stanek and the other panelists told Dayton that while the budget crisis is serious, “public safety is the first duty of government.”

Both McGowan and Bill Gillespie of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association said they are cutting employees but receiving more responsibilities from the Homeland Security Department.

“We have an infinite number of requests with finite resources,” McGowan said.

Osterholm said that while some label him an alarmist, other threats he foresaw – such as AIDS and E. coli in the early 1980s – have materialized and frank discussion of these issues is essential.

“I honestly believe that we have to accept that 200 or 300 people in the state of Minnesota can die and be affected by biological weapons, and it won’t bring down the state,” Osterholm said, adding that bringing down the World Trade Center in New York was not a crippling attack.

“We have to look at those things that are so catastrophic that they would shut down the state. We’ve got to cut to the chase of what’s going to make the difference,” Osterholm said. Short notice and adverse weather kept many from attending, audience members said, but those who were there said the open discussion was encouraging.

“It’s the first time anybody in the state of Minnesota has seen all these people in one place,” archeological consultant Deborah Morse-Kahn said. “In a way, it’s a historic event.”

Libby George welcomes comments at [email protected]