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The News-Press
"Preparing for the unknown"
September 8, 2002
Sec A, Pg 10
Author: Alison Gerber
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Preparing for the unknown

Preparing for the unknown After feelings of doom, gloom, fear steadily fades from Americans' psyche

The sight of two planes slicing into New York City's majestic skyline nearly a year ago plunged a dagger into America's safe bubble of immunity.

America had changed forever, we were told. Things would never be the same.

Anthrax in mailboxes left the nation feeling even more vulnerable, even more skittish and fearful.

Americans imagined a world where they couldn't drink the tap water, where they stashed gas masks and bottles of Cipro, where they had to open the mail wearing plastic gloves.

For a while, some of those things were reality.

Yet a year later, Americans have slid back into their day-to-day routines, with little obvious concern for personal safety.

We visit Disney World and ballparks, we work in skyscrapers, we drink tap water.

We go about our lives, even as CNN plays disturbing videos of terrorists poisoning a trapped dog.

Even as we teeter on the brink of war with Iraq.

Less than a year after the attacks, Americans are consumed with other dramas, real and created what Rachel of "Friends" named her baby, a roller-coaster stock market, the color of CNN correspondent Ashleigh Banfield's hair, corporate greed scandals.

"There was 9-11 followed by anthrax, and people were terrified," said Robert Butterworth, a clinical psychologist and director of International Trauma Associates, a Los Angeles-based firm.

"Now I get the feeling there's more fear over West Nile virus."

Fort Myers resident Peggy Poulsen, who grew up in New York City, plunged into depression after Sept. 11. She emerged with the help of a doctor and prescription drugs.

She still gets angry when she thinks about Sept. 11, but she says she feel safe.

"My life is still the same water aerobics, the movies, dinner with friends," said Poulsen, 73.

"What I worry about is my grandchildren. They're the ones I'm fearful for. The world they're growing up in is very fragile."

The year's images confirm that: war-torn Afghanistan, lost American soldiers, a man with a bomb in his shoe and a murdered journalist.

Fear still lurks, even if only deep in people's minds. Apprehension hovers. Our sense of safety may not be shattered, but it is dented.

Many would rather drive than fly, even long distances. Poulsen's daughter pulled out of a trip to Canada to celebrate her parents' 51st wedding anniversary because she was afraid to fly.

A Fort Myers nurse wrote Gov. Jeb Bush demanding access to a smallpox vaccination.

An AirTran pilot on a Fort Myers-to-Atlanta flight told passengers they could use the seatbacks as a flotation device and also to protect themselves against an attacker.

"Emotionally, people feel touched but behaviorally, a lot of people have blocked it out," Butterworth said.

"I don't know if it's a question of denial or if it's because there have been codes and colors and scares, but nothing else has occurred."

People are most concerned about a threat immediately after a disaster, said Cape Coral Fire Chief Bill Van Helden.

"Right after the attacks people were very aware and very concerned and were saying, What should we do?' " Van Helden said.

"That's waned."

Some believe Americans are getting too slack.

"So many people slipped into denial without realizing it," said retired Army Col. David Hackworth, the author of "Steel My Soldiers' Heart."

"But the threat still exists. ... The threat is as real now as when we had 50,000 Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles pointed at us."

Even if that threat has not caused us to change day-to-day behavior, government and law enforcement agencies are preparing for further terrorist attacks.

Van Helden and other emergency officials are creating plans and training workers to deal with biological or chemical weapons.

Southwest Florida health care officials are working on a statewide plan of action in case of a smallpox bioterrorism attack.

Law enforcement officers are on alert.

In July, a plane that made an unscheduled stop in Fort Myers because it needed fuel was greeted by FBI agents and other law enforcement officers.

They hustled to Southwest Florida International Airport fearing the plane had been hijacked.

Air travel is perhaps the No. 1 cause of fear and stress in post-Sept. 11 America.

Traffic at Southwest Florida International Airport fell 11.6 percent in July.

Nationwide, that drop was 10.3 percent., the Air Transport Association reported.

Other Americans are defiant, refusing to cower to terrorists.

Immediately after the attacks, tourists started flocking to the building tours offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

"It was kind of surprising, but people weren't afraid about being in tall buildings, and Chicago is skyscraper city," said Anne Brooks Ranallo of the foundation.

Soon after Sept. 11, New York City artist David Greg Harth started stamping dollar bills with the words, "I AM NOT TERRORIZED" and "I AM NOT AFRAID."

Harth, whose studio is a few blocks from the World Trade Center, said he never considered leaving the city and refused to live in fear.

"I have continued to do what I have always done, go to restaurants, go to work, create art," he said.

"The terrorists struck lower Manhattan, the financial capital of the world. I chose money as my medium to attack back."

He said there are more than 150,000 stamped bills in circulation, from New York to Florida to California.

Fort Myers resident Doris Helveston will board a plane from Fort Myers to New York on Sept. 11.

"I'll step onto that plane with my flag and my patriotic shirt," said Helveston, 68.

"I just want to get into an airplane that day to show some American spirit," said Helveston, who has flown a dozen times since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I want to make a statement: I will not let those terrorists set my schedule."

A defiant attitude about terrorism doesn't guarantee emotional calm, said Anie Kalayjian, a professor of psychology at Fordham University in New York.

Kalayjian asks: "Are Americans as a whole in fear? No."

But the possibility of another incident or fear of the unknown can cause anxiety, she said. Even if it creeps into the back of a person's mind or burrows into their subconscious, it takes a toll.

"It's stressful. Sept. 11 has affected everyone's sense of safety and security," she said, whether they realize it or not.

Van Helden, the Cape fire chief, tells people to have an emergency plan in case of terrorism supplies, phone numbers, an evacuation plan. He also tells them not to panic.

"We face as great a threat every hurricane season as any attacks with weapons of mass destruction," he tells people.

"I tell them to go about their lives but to have a plan. Just in case."

Copyright 2002, The News-Press.