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Pa. to get $110 million for security

(The following story by John Sullivan and Jennifer Lin appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer website on May 27.)

HARRISBURG -- As Americans steel themselves for a new round of terrorism threats, Gov. Rendell is to announce today that the state will get $110 million in federal homeland-security money for emergency preparedness.

The bulk will flow to the state's nine regional counterterrorism task forces, but a portion of the funds controlled by Rendell also will go to local agencies, such as regional ports and cash-strapped SEPTA.

The announcement comes as Attorney General John Ashcroft warns of "credible intelligence" pointing to a possible al-Qaeda attack in the United States.

State and local emergency-management officials say that the region is already on high alert, and that the latest threats will only serve to exacerbate the public's fears.

"Our concern is that it adds to an overall level of fear," said Jim Jordan, SEPTA's security chief.

Jordan said that as the head of one of the nation's largest public transit systems, he receives regular updates on suspicious activity from various government agencies. "They're all saying the same thing," Jordan said. "There is an increased level of chatter that al-Qaeda would like to do something this summer.

"It's the same information, and it has the same lack of definite quality. No one is saying we are escalating our alert level."

Mayor Street yesterday tried to reassure Philadelphians, telling reporters at City Hall that city officials were keeping a close eye on the situation.

"The public should feel reasonably safe, because we have our federal, state and local authorities really working together in an unprecedented way... to make sure that we're taking reasonable steps to protect the public," he said.

Deputy Philadelphia Police Commissioner Patricia Giorgio-Fox said at a news conference that police were taking the information into account in planning for Fourth of July celebrations.

"We want everyone to feel comfortable to come," she said.

During a visit to Philadelphia on Monday, U.S. Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge, Pennsylvania's former governor, said there was "no known risk in the Northeast corridor." But noting the recent deadly train bombings in Madrid, he said: "If terrorists were looking to disrupt things, they might take a look at our rail system."

SEPTA officials, who face a $70 million budget deficit, said they would use the $1 million Rendell was expected to hand them today to improve communications with security agencies, bolster security at stations, and purchase bomb-sniffing dogs.

Earlier this month, a motion detector was discovered planted near a SEPTA rail line, prompting an FBI investigation. It turned out to be a false alarm - the culprit was a SEPTA electrician trying to sneak naps - but the incident revealed worries about the vulnerability of transit lines.

"We could spend a billion dollars to build a fence around all our tracks, but we have to be realistic," said SEPTA board member Michael J. O'Donoghue.

So far, SEPTA has gotten about $6.4 million to improve security following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney.

Across the region yesterday, local officials said they, too, were on heightened alert.

My Linh Nguyen, a spokeswoman for the Delaware River Port Authority, said her agency had "drastically" increased its security efforts after Sept. 11. "We usually mirror the terror alert level, and until we hear differently, we're staying with the same course of action," she said.

The New Jersey Office of Counter-Terrorism had already issued reports to be on the lookout for seven terror suspects named by Ashcroft yesterday. It reissued those reports to state and local police after Ashcroft's news conference, and for the first time sent them to chemical and petroleum companies and electric and gas utilities.

Edwin J. Truitt, director of Delaware County Emergency Services, taking note of the area's oil refineries and chemical factories, said: "We tend to be as ready as we can be, whatever happens at any of those facilities."

Thursday, May 27, 2004

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