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Warm Showers For All 

Homeland Security for None

It's a dangerous world out there, and the people of Perquimans County on the North Carolina coast can't afford to let their guard down. They could be slaughtered at any moment by jihad-crazed terrorists. But we can all sleep better at night knowing that when the time comes, they'll be prepared. Thanks to the federal Department of Homeland Security, they'll be able to confront terrorists with five top-of-the-line chainsaws, a collection of body bags, a $5,500 gas detection device, and a smorgasbord of other equally random equipment that cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are prepared for the inevitable terrorist attack as well, armed with a cargo trailer, six decontamination suits, a decontamination shelter and a mass casualty conveyor belt to help them move the mangled bodies quickly after an attack. We don't want them to shiver as they use soap and water to remove radiation in their decontamination unit, so the $2,100 hot water heater for the unit was a must. And so was the $7,800 portable chemical monitor that will no doubt get a lot of use in rural Cherokee County.

And who could deny the people of Anson County an $8,100 anti-terrorism color printer? They, too, could be attacked at any moment and they'll need a printer to make ID badges or something like that. Of course, it wouldn't be fair if the Cherokee were the only ones to get a decontamination shelter, so Chatham, Craven, Currituck, Harnett and Lee counties each got decontamination shelters valued at $13,000 apiece. The state also doled out hundreds of thousands of homeland security dollars to buy cargo trailers, which were a very popular anti-terrorism device with counties across the state.

Such was the fate of the $31 million the NC Department of Crime Control (NCDCC) passed on to the counties in 2003 -- or at least the money I've been able to account for thus far, given the reluctance of the NCDCC to talk about the topic. I say that because for about six weeks, NCDCC Spokesperson Patty McQuillan and I have played a game that goes like this: I ask her over and over for a list of what each of North Carolina's 100 counties spent the 2002 and 2003 federal homeland security money on, and she sends me everything but what I asked for. When I confront her about this, she tells me that no list exists, that not all of the money has been spent, that she'll ask around to try to figure out what the counties spent, that she has no idea where to get something like that, that no one she asked knew anything about it, or she simply never gets back to me.

McQuillan and I will probably still be playing this game six weeks from now, but in the meantime, I managed to stumble on a partial list of 2003 purchase orders for about half the counties in the state which someone at the department put on the web. (How the 2002 money was spent remains a mystery.)

This much is certain: the state gave each county $10,000 of the money. The rest was doled out according to the population of each county without regard to the likelihood of a terrorist attack. Because the federal Department of Homeland Security dictates what the money can be spent on, counties loaded up on stuff that's now likely relegated to a supply closet or used in ways that have nothing to do with fighting terrorism.

Take Yadkin County's emergency services department, for instance. Officials there don't even bother to pretend they need their state-of-the-art decontamination trailer, which has several showers, for a terrorist attack, but they say it'll probably come in handy during power outages when residents don't have hot water.

Meanwhile, Mecklenburg County, the only county in the entire nation sandwiched between two nuclear plants, as well as America's number two banking capital, got just $2.8 million of the state homeland security allotment from the feds in 2003.

Of course, the reasons for this are obvious. For most of the rural counties, a $200,000 homeland security grant is the largest thing they've ever received. State leaders would rather score political points with local powerbrokers than protect the most vulnerable areas of our state, like Mecklenburg and the coastal port counties where ships bring in tons of unchecked cargo.

In response to pressure from the Homeland Security Department and urban areas, the state is asking counties to conduct threat assessments to be used in future decisions about where the terrorism-preparedness money should go. But since that information could reveal "security weaknesses," it will never be public, so what the NCDCC bases its future grant decisions on will still be a mystery known only to those doling out the dough. The result? A potential political slush fund with a lot of promise.

And North Carolina isn't alone. State governments across the country are doing the same thing to different degrees with the more than $6 billion in homeland security money the federal government has doled to "first responders" since Sept. 11. The result? Warm showers for all and homeland security for none.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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