Montana's emergency, disaster chief retiring
HELENA - After that Tuesday morning, Jim Greene had more worries than earthquakes, floods and fires. Terrorism suddenly dominated the life of the state's disaster and emergency services director.
''In many ways, it did change everything,'' Greene said of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. ''There was an immediate emphasis on terrorism.''
The result is that much of Greene's work since then has been consumed by making plans to prepare for, prevent and respond to the potential for terrorist attacks in Montana. At the same time, he said, those efforts have helped state and local governments improve their ability to handle run-of-the-mill emergencies as well.
''It's more than just terrorism,'' he said in an interview this week. ''It really is all-hazard emergency management.''
Greene, 56, will retire at the end of this month after 32 years of working for state government and a decade as the head of Montana's Disaster and Emergency Services Division.
His job, perhaps more than that of any other state employee, changed dramatically with the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. Greene said the increased workload and stress of the job are factors in his decision to leave.
''There's a lot of people relying on us to know what's going on and be able to give warning,'' he said.
Greene leaves office shortly after overseeing completion of Montana's second homeland security strategic plan, a roadmap for the state's priorities and plans for spending an estimated $20 million in federal aid expected over the next year.
The disaster and emergency business really began changing in the 1990s, Greene said. Before then, officials were just beginning to emerge from the cold war mind-set that focused on civil defense and preparations to deal with possible nuclear attacks, he said.
Terrorism worries had started to surface even before Sept. 11 as a series of events prompted Greene and counterparts in other states to turn more attention toward possible terrorism. It began with the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center, followed by the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and increasing national focus on the Unabomber, Freemen and militia groups.
Those events combined to make it clear that the United States was not immune to terrorism, Greene said. ''It could happen away from cities that are known worldwide. It could happen anywhere in the country.''
Even the 1996 train derailment and resulting chlorine spill near Alberton raised some concerns, he recalled. That day was marked by two or three other derailments around the country and some officials speculated terrorism might be the cause even then, he said.
''All of those things collectively kind of accelerated a better partnership between all the different responder groups, law enforcement, fire, health department,'' Greene said.
In Montana, Greene's office had its hands full in responding to wildfires, floods, winter storms and hazardous material spills even before terrorism was added to the mix.
The increased focus on homeland security needs has benefited state and local emergency planners by giving them more tools and training to cope with non-terrorist incidents. The big initial push has been for more teams to handle hazardous material threats and new radio gear that ensures all government agencies can communicate with one another, he said.
While some may question Montana's vulnerability to terrorism, Greene said that is naive. Anything that could seriously affect the economy is a threat to homeland security, and that doesn't always mean an intentional act, he said.
Discovery of a foreign animal disease, a polluted water supply system, the spread of chronic wasting disease or an earthquake are the kinds of events that could raise havoc in the state, Greene said.
Preparation for such incidents is the key, especially as a means of discouraging man-made catastrophes, he added.
''It's something to be concerned about,'' he said. ''Historically, terrorists always go after the weak spots. If we become perceived as the weak link in the chain and an easy mark for them, it can have a dramatic impact.''
Greene plans to stay involved in his profession, helping the state of Texas develop disaster training exercises and working as a part-time employee of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to aid local officials in dealing with disasters.