Safety First

DEPARTMENT/COLUMN; Department, Who    Arts-Ent/Who’sWho Feature

THE OFFICE of Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management isn’t flanked by Humvees or buried in a bunker. Ist’s just off a food court in a St. Paul high-rise, across from a Caribou Coffee. Office workers, not so different from those who perished in the World Trade Center attacks, stream past its glass door all day.

The state division was created in 2003, when the Minnesota Emergency Services office added a Homeland Security component to its mission, making it eligible for federal dollars to fight terrorism. Kris Eide became the division’s director last October; it’s her job to ensure the state is ready for all things catastrophic, from pandemic flu to dirty bombs, from tornados to attacks on our food supply.

In Eide’s office, the clock is set to military time, a reminder of her childhood growing up on Air Force bases. A box of sample HeaterMeals and Eversafe Complete Meal Kits—the latest in emergency rations—sits beside her desk, awaiting her scrutiny. Eide was a music student at the University of Minnesota before switching to sociology. She later joined the American Red Cross, assisting with hurricane relief and other disaster cleanups across the country. “I was going to be a Broadway star,” she muses. Now, she’s helping the state “play catch-up,” as she puts it, with those who would destroy us.

“We let civil defense die when the feds decided that the Cold War was done and we didn’t have an enemy anymore,” she says. In fact, the enemy didn’t disappear: “They just changed costumes.”

Nowadays, Minnesota is better prepared for disaster—natural or otherwise. Mobile command posts, decontamination trailers (in case of chemical or radiological attack), and collapsed-structure teams—rescuers trained to remove victims from large, devastated buildings—have all been added to our arsenal. But this year, federal funding for Minnesota’s counterterrorism efforts was slashed by more than half, and Eide’s not happy. A planned emergency-communications network, among other projects, may now be delayed.

Some critics complain that rural areas siphon too much Homeland Security money away from cities, but Eide disagrees. Metro areas may indeed have more targets, she says, but they’re also better equipped to respond. And many of the most dangerous situations in recent Minnesota history, she notes, have occurred outstate, from the Red River flooding in 1997 to the 1991 plot by the Minnesota Patriots Council, a militia based in Alexandria, to assassinate IRS agents and deputy sheriffs with toxins.

Eide was initially skeptical of the federal Department of Homeland Security, staffed as it is with Beltway-based bureaucrats. “If you’ve never had a hose in your hand, don’t tell people how to fight a fire,” she says. But it’s better organized now, she thinks. And she hopes people understand, post-Katrina, that those who can take care of themselves in an emergency have a responsibility to do so. “Don’t say, ‘I need to be plucked from my roof because I was too stubborn to leave,’” she admonishes.

Still, should the sky fall or the ground collapse or the waters rise up around us, know this: Eide will be down in the Emergency Operations Center, a bunker in an undisclosed location from which Homeland Security officials and other government workers can coordinate a response when crisis strikes. And she’s confident her crew will rise to the occasion. “We shine,” she says, “when it’s the darkest hour.” MM