Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, Dec. 17, 2001

Sheriff recounts crazy reactions to Sept. 11

By John Holler

On an office door in the Wright County Courthouse, there is a Doonesbury cartoon taped up that has a character simply saying, "I miss Sept. 10th."

That sentiment is shared by many, since Sept. 11 changed the lives of many people and seemingly no one came away from the World Trade Center and Pentagon tragedies untouched by the experience.

However, while the events in the aftermath have all seemed to focus on New York City, Wright County has seen its share of change following the tragedies.

At a recent Wright County Board meeting, the commissioners asked the state to allow the county to exceed levy limit restrictions when it comes to increasing security measures, citing the Sept. 11 tragedy as the impetus for an increased sense of security.

However, in the two months since the tragic events of Sept. 11, the changes have come and began almost immediately. Sheriff Gary Miller is technically in charge of security for Wright County and he said the backlash of the plane attacks hit home almost instantly.

"I was coming into work when I heard a plane had hit the Trade Center," Miller said. "We have a TV in the juvenile holdover facility and when I saw it, it was obvious that it was a jet that had hit. We saw the second plane hit, the first reaction was that this was no accident. It was pure terrorism."

Within minutes, as the county board continued with its regularly scheduled Sept. 11 meeting, Miller began fielding phone calls and going on alert in the event that other problems may arise.

"Almost immediately, we began firing up the emergency response program," Miller said. "The most immediate impact involved the nuclear power plant. We've been working with them prior to Sept. 11, and once we knew this was a terrorist act, we provided an on-site presence for the next couple of weeks around the clock."

While it may seem far-fetched to think that Wright County would have been an attack site, Miller said that it wasn't out of the realm of possibility for a couple of key reasons.

"First, there has always been a concern over the safety of a nuclear power facility, because those have always been seen as a site of an attack that could do the most damage and, whenever you have a major incident, there is the potential for home-grown criminals to try a copycat crime," Miller said.

"Second, it became pretty clear early on that the people involved in these events were of Middle Eastern descent. Minnesota has a much larger Middle Eastern population that most states.

"It wasn't surprising that the first person identified as being involved in the terrorist cells was in jail in Minnesota and had tried to receive flight training here. If you ranked states that would be at risk for potential terrorist acts based by people of that profile, Minnesota would be closer to the top of that list than the bottom," Miller said.

The hours after the attacks were quite chaotic as calls flooded into the sheriff's offices with questions, concerns and potential tips and, by the evening of Sept. 11, sheriff's deputies were breaking up fistfights as rumors spread that gas prices were jumping by the following morning, creating a run on gas stations.

"It was crazy," Miller said. "That gas price story didn't start from news reports. It was just one person telling someone else and it spread like wildfire. People were going crazy to get gas, and others wanted to take all their money out of local banks. It was pretty wild."

The topic of safety quickly turned to taking steps to protect the county from any potential safety issues - something that had been underway prior to Sept. 11, but were stepped up in the aftermath.

"There have been ongoing discussions about increased security at the courthouse, human services and public works buildings," Miller said. "We had been discussing those issues before Sept. 11, but what happened that day just upped the ante."

Miller said he's personally felt the impact of the changes in security. When he shows up to pick his daughter up from middle school, even though he is wearing his sheriff's uniform and knows the woman at the front desk, he still has to sign in before he can get his child.

But, he said at the county level, what had been seen as a big waste of money and worry saved the day Sept. 11. "What really helped us out was the preparation we had gone through during our Y2K preparation," Miller said.

"That Y2K emergency plan came into play with what we were dealing with as far as an emergency situation goes. We wouldn't have been nearly as prepared if we hadn't had to take those precautions over potential Y2K problems when that problem arose," Miller said.

In the two months since the attacks, the impact of terrorist acts has continued to affect Wright County, especially the later anthrax situation. The sheriff's department has received many calls about suspicious mail and have changed the process under which the county handles incoming mail.

Otherwise, he said, things have slowly been returning to normal at the county level, while activity is picking up at the state and federal level.

"You would have thought the federal and state governments would be the first to have things in order, but the wheels of government move pretty slow, regardless of the situation," Miller said. "There's much more activity going on there than there is here, because it takes more time to get things done on a larger scale than a smaller scale."

While he admits that life may never really be the same as it was on Sept. 10, he said that with increased awareness of the crippling affects of such attacks, the combination of emergency plans that were needed for Y2K and what has been learned from the latest bouts with terrorism, all law enforcement and emergency service agencies will be better prepared in the future.

"If no other event happens in this county again, Sept. 11 has made it so we're going to be more prepared than we ever would have been before," Miller said.

"There's nothing good that came directly out of the Sept. 11 tragedy, but, with what we've learned since, within the next year or two, we should be prepared to handle just about anything that can happen for the next 20 or 30 years," Miller said.

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