IT is afternoon at the Sentosa Restaurant in Allen Street in downtown Manhattan and Joanne Chen, part owner of the eatery, is serving customers in between having her lunch of Hokkien mee.
It is a popular Malaysian restaurant where the food is good and prices reasonable. Naturally, Malaysians working in the city patronise the place.
“We have a good crowd during lunch,’’ said Chen, who takes orders, organises takeaways and acts as cashier.
“How is the situation here?” I asked.
“What situation?’’ she responded.
“The orange alert and the people buying plastic sheets, duct tape, bottled water, batteries, torchlight and other emergency supplies in case of a terrorist attack,” I elaborated.
She smiled and said: “I haven’t even thought about it. People who come here have not spoken about it. I guess everyone is too busy thinking about work.”
Chen said that as far as she knew, people in Chinatown were not too concerned about the terror alert.
“Perhaps if you go to the stores like Wall Mart, Home Depot or other big stores dealing in such materials they will be able to give you an idea of how people are reacting.”
A Chinese friend in Emhurst, Queens, gave this response: “Hello, I’m a Chinese. If the time comes for me to go, I go. Plastic sheets are not going to help me.”
Xavier Pereira, originally from India and now a New Yorker, said he couldn’t see what a plastic sheet could do in a terrorist attack.
“What guarantee is there that gas or fumes cannot come through? In any case I have not given any serious thought about getting any of the items,” he said.
A postal service worker, who hails from the Dominican Republic, said the announcements were scaring the people unnecessarily.
On the other end of the spectrum, people are buying up all the plastic sheets, duct tape and emergency supplies as soon as they get on the shelves. They are also stocking up on food.
Take Paul West of Winsted, Connecticut, who wrapped the lower level of his home in plastic sheets and duct tape to guard against chemical and biological attack, or a man who invested about US$1,000 on three gas masks for his family.
The media blitz that played up the terror alert announcement has been partly responsible for this state of fear among some members of the public.
Anyone listening to the daily news barrage on TV of potential terrorist attacks cannot but help think that US cities like New York and Washington are under siege.
Anti-aircraft guns guarding Capitol Hill in Washington and heavily armed personnel on bridges, subway stations, airports, busy streets, outside hotels and apartments in New York leave a war-like impression.
It sends the wrong message to people overseas. No one would want to visit the US now or in the near future.
But the alert has not stopped people from using the subway, a major target of terrorists. During peak hours, the place is packed.
Mixed signals from the various security organisations like the FBI and CIA, as well as City Hall, has caused a certain amount of confusion.
The Department of Homeland Security issued the orange alert and asked the public to take precautions. In the same breath, it said the threats were general with no specific targets.
In steps New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, telling city folk that whatever they do “don’t duct-tape your windows.”
He explains: “You just cannot stop and let the terrorists win and go into a room and duct-tape the doors and windows. Go about your business. The city is safe.”
This is the second time since the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in New York – and the introduction of the colour-code warning system – that the “orange alert,” just one below red, has been issued.
Among others, orange alert comes with intensified coordinated security efforts between the armed forces and law enforcement agencies; additional precautions at public events; and access to essential personnel only to certain areas.
This time the government has gone further and advised the public what to do if there was a chemical or a biological attack.
Besides keeping duct tape and plastic sheets to seal windows, families have been urged to prepare a disaster supply kit that would include a three-day supply of water at one gallon a person per day, food, a battery-powered radio, a change of clothes, and cash.
The guidelines, prepared by the Department of Homeland Security, have been posted on the website of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (www.fema.gov).
But while the public have been asked to take precautions, the New York Fire Department, the first line of defence in a chemical or biological terrorist attack, said firefighters were as good as dead as they did not have the training or the equipment to protect themselves let alone the public.
Long-time residents say that post-9/11 New York is a changed city where people tend to panic more easily on hearing about warnings of potential terrorist attack.
Malaysian P. Selvam, who works in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations at the UN, said he was walking in New York recently when an old woman nearby dropped a bag of coins.
“I bent down to help her pick up the coins when all of a sudden she screamed. I was shocked and embarrassed but fortunately people around did not bother to look. The woman realised that I was only helping her and she apologised.
“I’m sorry but Sept 11 has really put this fear into me,” she told him.
FAMILIES of victims of the Sept 11 terrorist attack have until March 1 to request special sculpture memorials made from steel recovered from the World Trade Centre site.
World-renowned sculptor Bryan Hunt created a cast concrete form that holds a rectangular fragment of ¾-inch steel.
Hunt, who lives and works in Tribeca, near the WTC site, said that for many of them the tragedy literally happened in their backyards and there were “gaping holes of sadness in the landscape.”
Hunt describes his work: “I wanted the steel fragment to be accessible, to be touched and held, which gives one the opportunity to feel its weight, its density, its reality, so that it might be shared and passed on through time.”
Retired firefighter Lee Ielpi, who lost his firefighter son Jonathan in the disaster, enlisted other fire department workers to help cut the steel.
Ielpi also enlisted Signs and Decal Corporation of Brooklyn, New York, a company that makes signs for airports and terminals, to produce the sculptures at cost.
The company’s owner, Babu Khalfan, who came here from Madagascar 30 years ago, said he was grateful to the American people who had put him in business.
“I started with space donated to me by my landlord in Long Island City. This is a way for me to give back to the city that has been good to me and my family.”
The memorials are available at The Gift of New York at 1-800-528-1499 or www.thegiftofnew york.org until March 1.
Johan Fernandez is Editor, North America Bureau, based in New York (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )