Terrorists would overlook this city of 5,100 people on the Western prairie, residents told themselves after Sept. 11. There are no big buildings, no major corporations, nothing of national consequence except the now-closed silos where Minuteman missiles were on alert during the Cold War.
But reports last week of letters carrying anthrax made men and women look at their mailboxes and think: What if?
"What's scary is you never know what you could get in your mail any more," said Cheryl Hay, a clerk at Duckwall's dime store on Brush's two block main street. "It changes the way you feel."
Thousands of miles from New York and Washington, small-town America is grappling with the fallout from terrorist attacks and wondering how to respond. Homeland security challenges outside urban or suburban areas are very different.
There isn't the manpower that is available in bigger cities. Firefighters and emergency medical technicians are mostly volunteers holding down other full-time jobs. The sheriff's office often has only a handful of people to keep watch over vast wide open spaces.
"The most critical issue in dealing with a potential crisis in rural areas is: Can they come up with the [people]," said Greg Moser, a counterterrorism expert with Colorado's Office of Emergency Management.
Many small communities have a fragile public health infrastructure, at best. Hospitals are few and far between; shortages of doctors and other medical providers are endemic. If bioterrorism were to occur, immediate response would be difficult. Equipment for dealing with hazardous materials often is outdated or frequently unavailable.
"These communities just don't have the resources, financial and otherwise, that larger urban areas do," said Javier Gonzalez, president of the National Association of Counties.
Threats differ in rural areas
The security threats also are different. While large cities now worry about the possibility of skyscrapers falling or chemicals being released in the subway, small towns and rural areas are concerned about reservoirs, dams, pipelines, electrical switching facilities, power plants, and railway tracks that crisscross the countryside, constituting a large part of the critical infrastructure of the U.S.
Increasingly, with bioterrorism already on America's doorstep, rural communities also worry about the health and safety of the crops and livestock that are the backbone of rural economies, and a critical food source for the country.
"We've been told our biggest concern should be all the cattle," said Eilene Brannon, emergency management director for Cherry County in north-central Nebraska, a 5,961-square-mile area larger than Connecticut and known as "God's Cow Country."
The only incorporated city in the county, Valentine, has 2,800 residents. Otherwise, people are scattered across the vast open prairie, where cows graze unconfined. "We've told the ranchers, it's up to you to keep your eyes open, and contact someone if there's something unusual so we can go ahead and check it out. And we've told the [cattle] feedlots, be on alert," Brannon said. "Otherwise, there's not a whole lot more that we can do."
Catron County in western New Mexico has similar problems. Including the county sheriff's staff of six and a state police force of four, there are 10 law-enforcement officers to patrol nearly 7,000 square miles. The nearest hospital to Reserve, the county seat, is 100 miles away in Silver City.
"We've all felt fairly safe, being so far removed," said Janet Porter, county treasurer. "But that's changing, as we all realize this was not just a one-day attack."
New training needed
Catron County's 12 volunteer fire departments also are responsible for emergency medical services. Since Sept. 11, they've been training how to deal with hazardous materials and, more recently, how to identify and handle anthrax or other forms of bioterrorism. On Oct. 15, county officials met for the first time to discuss the need for coordinated plans to respond to potential threats.
With no radio station in the area, officials would have to rely on people to pick up the phone and call each other in the event of an emergency. "Notification would be extremely hard to do," Porter said. "Even if I saw something suspicious and could get through to the sheriff's office, they probably wouldn't have any more idea of what was going on than I did."
In the Uncompahgre River Valley in western Colorado, officials have been urging residents to purchase special radios that get emergency alerts from the National Weather Service. This spring, the area installed a radio transmitter to warn of floods or wildfires; now, emergency managers are planning to include terrorist threats among their alerts.
Many rural counties have plans to address disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes or blizzards; few have put terrorism on their list. More than half of Colorado's 63 counties have not completed terrorism response plans, although it has become a much higher priority in the last six weeks, counterterrorism expert Moser said.
In Bland County, Va., which has about 7,000 residents in 359 square miles, officials are concerned about two major tunnels that carry traffic through mountains on Interstate Highway 77, a north-south artery. With one state trooper assigned to the area and a six-member sheriff's department, "we're lucky if we have two people on duty at any time to keep an eye on security," said Frank Chandler, chairman of the board of supervisors.
While Virginia has sent extra highway troopers to patrol tunnels on its eastern shore, "we have not been afforded extra protection and we're unable to do anything more on our own," Chandler said.
Small town closeness helps
In East Grand Forks, Minn., a city of 5,500, contractor Don Hecht feels the community's closeness provides an extra level of protection. "This is a small place. We all go to football games together, and see each other at the store," he said. "It isn't like someone could move into town, rent an apartment, and set up a terrorist center without arousing suspicion."
The city isn't taking anything on faith. On Oct. 12, it sent a three-page letter to all contractors working on water and electrical systems, informing them of new security measures. Instead of being open, all city facilities will be locked down and IDs required of all employees, the letter said. Every delivery is now being checked, and materials must be stored indoors instead of being left outside.
"It's time to be more aware of everything that's going on around us," said Doris Karloff, supervisor of Saunders County in eastern Nebraska. "Rather than turning away and saying it's not my business, or not bothering to notice what's going on next door, it's our responsibility to be more conscious and cautious."