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Security wakeup call brings changes

The Crystal River nuclear plant devotes $3-million to an overhaul. Airports, schools and utility providers adjust their procedures.

By Times staff writers
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 8, 2002

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed the United States in countless ways. Because Wednesday is the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, the Citrus Times examined how Citrus County has changed during the past year -- and how it might change in the years to come.

One thing is certain: Citrus, like many other places, began looking at itself as a possible target.

Perhaps that's most obvious at the Florida Power nuclear plant in Crystal River. Security was ratcheted up immediately after the World Trade Center towers were toppled by jetliners.

Responding to a February order by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Florida Power has enlarged its armed forces, installed surveillance cameras and concrete barriers and is finishing a state-of-the-art security checkpoint.

The checkpoint is a mile closer to U.S. 19 than the previous post. The goal: to provide more distance from the plant in the event of an attack or explosion. After maneuvering a series of turns in the road, cars and trucks split into two lanes, one for employees, another for everyone else.

Visitors and delivery trucks eventually will pass over a road section embedded with cameras and then proceed to an inspection bay, where guards will run swabs across the steering wheel and other locations.

The swabs will be inserted into a $48,000 computer in the bombproof guard station and tested for TNT, nitrogen and other dangerous materials.

If a vehicle happens to get by, guards can activate a steel wedge that will pop out of the road, stopping anything in its path.

Not long ago, these measures and more may have seemed an overreaction.

But "Sept. 11 changed everything," said Don Taylor, manager of site support services, who is overseeing the $3-million security overhaul at the plant.

Like the power plant, the ramifications of Sept. 11 are still unfolding at airports in Crystal River and Inverness.

"It's only going to get worse as the bureaucrats develop their regulations," said Tom Davis, president of the company that runs the airports and a small flight school.

Davis expects regulators will call for additional security measures in the coming months, such as requiring planes be secured in a hangar and equipped with prop locks. Those measures, he said, will be expensive and cumbersome.

"The premise that general aviation aircraft are a serious threat is just not warranted," Davis said, echoing a sentiment shared by the industry. "I haven't had a single terrorist show up here."

But they did elsewhere in Florida. Two of the men suspected of hijacking jetliners and crashing them into the World Trade Center were trained at a school in Venice.

The state is home to at least 220 flight schools, a branch of the aviation business that has long catered to foreign students.

Davis, who trains about 30 students a year, said his foreign business has dropped by about a third. People are less willing to go through the regulatory hoops now required, he said.

The local airports were shuttered immediately after the terrorist attacks and remained closed for several days.

Though jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, attention soon focused on small private planes as fears over chemical and biological warfare grew. There was also concern that planes loaded with explosives would be used to dive-bomb nuclear plants.

On Oct. 23, a small plane was forced to land by two F-16s after flying too close to the Crystal River nuclear plant. Authorities found two men and a lot of marijuana on board, but no terrorists.

A week later, the government banned all aviation within 11 miles of nuclear power plants. Crystal River Airport, still reeling from the earlier shutdown, was closed for a week.

Utility systems also have started paying more attention to security.

Crystal River, for example, replaced tattered fencing and added lighting for better security at its water plant. U.S. Filter, the company that operates the Crystal River plant and Rolling Oaks Utilities in Beverly Hills, temporarily halted plant tours and reminded workers to "strictly follow" company procedure in checking the shipping papers and drivers' credentials for any chemical delivery.

"It's not unthinkable: You think you're putting chlorine in your system but instead you've had your chemicals manipulated," Robert Knight, the county's private utility regulator, said at the time.

"You want to make sure you have the right person doing the delivery."

To guard against any misunderstandings, Inverness gave ID badges to the farmers who have grown hay for years in the spray field next to the city's sewer plant.

The events of Sept. 11 didn't change the daily routine everywhere, however. The Citrus County Sheriff's Office is a good example.

But the tragedy did create a greater awareness of the potential threat posed by terrorism, said Ronda Hemminger Evan, a sheriff's spokeswoman.

The sheriff sent several deputies to classes where they learned how to handle an attack by a weapon of mass destruction.

"In their career field, the guys and women have always been trained to prepare for the 'what ifs,' " Evan said.

"Before, that meant traffic stops. Now it could be a biological weapon."

More training continues. But since Citrus is home to a nuclear power plant, as well as a coastal community, authorities found they were already poised to handle a countywide evacuation.

"We feel that we are very well prepared," Evan said.

The events of Sept. 11 prompted school officials to re-examine security, but they didn't see the need to make many changes, either: For educators, the security wakeup call came years ago, in response to the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado.

Still, some things changed. A move to issue employee ID cards was completed, and a related effort to provide IDs for volunteers and substitutes started.

"We're always looking at where we are and what else we need to do," said Ed Murphy, risk manager for the school district.

The terrorist attacks had one other long-lasting effect: School floor plans and safety plans, previously open for public inspection, became private documents because of security reasons.

Some of the ramifications in Citrus were as unpredictable as the attacks themselves.

People like Caitlyn Reeder, then 11, gave their time and money to help the victims. With the help of her family in Inverness, Caitlyn made and sold hundreds of American flag pins for the relief effort.

The patriotic sight of flags everywhere inspired semiretired architect Harold Seckinger to propose a new state flag for Florida using red, white and blue.

And in a way, terrorism helped settle the lingering county seat issue.

Citing the need for better security at commission meetings, county Commissioner Roger Batchelor dropped his support in February for a voter referendum to move the board's meetings to Lecanto.

The courthouse in Inverness already has higher security, with limited entrances, metal detectors and sheriff's deputies standing watch.

Adding those features to a meeting room in Lecanto would create another cost, Batchelor reasoned.

"We need to be concerned about security," Batchelor said. "Not that this is New York, but we have had from time to time various concerns."

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