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Terrorist warning lifted from yellow to orange

WASHINGTON—Warning of a possible terrorist attack from al-Qaida or allies of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge Monday night hiked the national alert level from yellow to orange.

There is no specific confirmed threat at a specific place or time, said Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.

Ridge said, however, that he expects terrorists to "attempt multiple attacks" against the United States and its allies if war breaks out against Iraq.

President Bush offered the same rationale. "If Saddam Hussein decides to cling to power, he will remain a deadly foe until the very end. In desperation, he and terrorist groups might try to conduct terrorist operations against the American people and our friends," he said during a live broadcast speech giving Saddam 48 hours to exit Iraq. The upped security alert came immediately after Bush's speech.

It will trigger stepped-up security at power plants, dams, Wall Street and at financial networks and transportation systems. It also increases tighter security at borders, airports and hotels. The U.S. Coast Guard and Border Patrol will operate more patrols. Surveillance around government buildings will increase. New flight restrictions are being imposed over New York, Washington and other unnamed key areas.

Homeland Security Secretary Ridge has asked governors to call up their National Guard units to help law enforcement ensure security. Public events may be moved or cancelled. Schools are being asked to sign off on preparedness plans.

To protect food safety, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is asking food manufacturers and distributors to inspect vehicles and to escort visitors.

Political asylum applicants from countries with ties to al-Qaida or other terrorist groups will be detained without hearings or access to lawyers while the government processes their applications. Usually, applicants are allowed to live freely.

In addition, the orange alert prompts local police and emergency authorities to prepare for an immediate attack, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The agency website urges its local partners to "review plans for and be prepared to immediately implement SEVERE (Red) Threat Condition measures."

During a red alert, government, medical teams, and law enforcement may be shifted from their regular duties "to address critical emergency needs," according to FEMA's guidance. Bridges, tunnels, and airports might shut down. Public sites and government buildings are likely to close.

The last orange alert lasted from Feb. 7 to Feb. 27—and caused a run on duct tape and plastic sheeting—after Homeland Security Department officials believed intelligence sources who suggested an attack near the time of the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

Ridge initially suggested stockpiling food, water, and materials to seal windows and doors. Then, to calm an anxious nation, Ridge backed off the duct tape and plastic sheeting recommendation, saying, "don't use them yet."

On Feb. 19, he said that the color-coded threat advisory system was meant mainly as a warning for law enforcement and local officials.

Households can take cues from the alert system as well. The Homeland Security website offers advice at http://www.ready.gov/ and free brochures by mail by calling 800-BE-READY.

Disaster preparedness experts recommend that Americans take the same steps that they would to brace for a hurricane, blizzard, flood or power outage.

It is impossible, they say, to prepare for every possible type of terrorist attack, particularly chemical and radiological ones.

One essential is a plan to reunite families if an event occurs when they are apart. The plan needs to include everyone's phone number and a place where family members plan to rejoin. In addition, it may be good to designate someone for family members to call to say where they are.

An out-of-state person may be a good choice, as the heavy volume of calls during an emergency can jam local phone lines.

In addition, households should have a battery-powered radio so they can listen for information from authorities on what to do.

Experts also recommend that each household have a "go bag" including enough nonperishable food and water for a few days, the radio, flashlights and extra batteries, a first aid kit, plastic garbage bags and ties for personal sanitation, warm clothing, any needed medications and a waterproof plastic bag containing copies of identification, prescriptions and important papers.

The Homeland Security Department's Web site suggests that people cover their noses and mouths with a handkerchief or cotton material immediately after an attack. While this is useful to stop from inhaling debris it is not be of much use against chemical and biological agents that are odorless and undetectable

"You're not going to know when to put the stuff on anyway," said Dr. Robin McFee, the director of the Center for Bioterrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction Preparedness at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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For more information:

For advice on what to do about an orange alert, go to

http://www.ready.gov/ or http://www.fema.gov/

For information about on school emergency plans, go to

http://www.ed.gov/emergencyplan/

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(Ken Moritsugu contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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