ON WEDNESDAY, MARCH 5, 2003, AROUND 5:30 P.M., a single-engine Cessna 172 passes over the Santa Monica Mountains, just west of the 405 freeway, heading southeast at 3,500 feet. Over the next 10 minutes it will fly over Brentwood, LAX, Hawthorne, Torrance and Long Beach. Because it will stay carefully in the prescribed north-south transit corridor through the Los Angeles Special Flight Rules Area and squawk code 1201 on the transponder; air traffic control will pay no attention to the plane, and the pilot won't be required to file a flight plan or identify himself in any way.
Although the pilot doesn't know it, and wouldn't care if he did, he is about to pass over the sprawling Brentwood home of a high-powered movie agent who, at the moment, is standing on her tennis court, totally dominating a bearded, paunchy screenwriter with her powerful forehand and blazing serve. In fact, it occurs to the agent, as she delivers yet another winner, she couldn't have asked for a better day. At 10 in the morning, the Porsche dealer had delivered her new Cayenne SUV. At a lunch meeting, she closed a two-picture deal with Miramax for a hot new client. Now she's punishing the writer so badly he's too winded to talk, let alone make another smart-ass gibe. Later that evening, she'll be celebrating — dinner at Spago, drinks at the Sky Bar. But just as she tosses up the ball for what she fully expects will be the match-winning point, she notices a fleeting white cloud overhead, like a mini-rain squall, trailing a plane across the sky. What in the hell are they doing now? she wonders. Spraying for more Medflies?
As the agent pounds out the final shot and walks over to the net to flash her infamous "I win again" smile and shake the writer's damp, defeated hand, she makes a mental note to put the Cayenne in the garage before dressing for dinner — don't they realize that that Medfly crap can ruin the finish on a car?
Two days later and 22 miles across town, a veterinarian from Bellflower is kneeling in a longtime client's back yard, examining Martha, a potbellied pig. Martha is lying on her side, covered in blue sores, dripping blood from the corner of her mouth and making a harsh, shrill sound whenever she breathes. Having never seen anything like this before, the veterinarian injects the pig with antibiotics and, telling the weeping owner he needs to research the problem, gets in his car and drives home. All the way he keeps thinking, Blue sores on a pig? Where have I heard that before?
In the early hours of Saturday morning, the answer comes to him so suddenly that he finds himself sitting up in bed. Of course, he says. There'd been a question about blue pig sores in an animal-epidemiology test in veterinary school. Switching on the light, he picks up the phone and leaves a message on the county health-department communicable-disease reporting hot line: "Please call me back. I'm a veterinarian in Bellflower. I've come across something I think you ought to know about."
That same morning, a kindergarten teacher from Riverside, flying a Beechcraft Bonanza to join her husband for the weekend in Lake Havasu City, spots a Cessna 172 on Cadiz Dry Lake in the eastern Mojave. Thinking that perhaps someone had engine trouble or ran out of gas, she cuts power, banks left and sets down beside the Cessna. That's strange, she thinks, as she turns her engine off. Strips of gray duct tape hang down from the inside of the Cessna's cockpit door, as if the pilot has been trying to protect himself from the outside air. The first thing she sees, when she looks inside, is a stainless-steel box, bolted to the floor behind the pilot's seat and connected to the aircraft's side-mounted venturi by a black vacuum hose. "Whoa," she says, freezing in the doorway. "What in the world is that?"
As it happens, it is not only a bio-weapons delivery platform, it's such a sophisticated one that when the pilot flew over the middle of LAX two days previously, hardly anyone on the ground even noticed him, let alone realized that he had just laid down a long, near-invisible cloud of anthrax spores, each one so infinitesimally fine and light that 25 in a row were still no wider than a human hair.
Over the course of six hours, a gentle westerly wind blew these tiny spores across much of the L.A. basin, where they settled on homes, yards, patios and cafés; floated into windows and intake vents; landed on freeways, soccer fields, dog parks and Brentwood tennis courts. By Thursday morning, 624,000 people — and nearly as many animals — had inhaled them. It was the most deadly attack ever made on America, and it had been carried out both in total secrecy and with consummate ease — though, for the moment, not a single person had any symptoms at all.
Those don't begin for another day and a half, on Friday, March 7, when the first dozen victims, including the Brentwood agent, come down with a cough, fever and feeling of general malaise. The agent calls her secretary first thing in the morning and tells her to cancel all her meetings; she's spending the day in bed.
Three or four times during the day, she vaguely hears her answering machine pick up and her secretary's voice saying something about calling "Harvey at Miramax." But she feels too weak and exhausted to get out of bed, let alone match wits with Weinstein. It isn't until 7 p.m. Friday night that her bearded, tennis-playing writer friend shows up for yet another story conference, only to find her semicoherent, lying half in and half out of bed, looking strangely bluish, drenched in sweat, running a high fever and breathing in a harsh, shrill way.
"Send an ambulance right away," he wails to the 911 dispatcher. "Something's wrong with my agent!"
THE YOUNG DOCTOR ON CALL AT THE L.A. COUNty Department of Health Services Acute Communicable Disease Control Unit doesn't quite know what to make of all this anthrax anxiety when she receives the message on Saturday morning. No one gets anthrax in Los Angeles. It's a rural disease, and a rare one at that. But this morning she spoke with a Bellflower veterinarian who thought he might have a potbellied pig with anthrax, and then a resident at the UCLA Medical Center who says he has a delirious 34-year-old woman from Brentwood in critical condition with bluish skin. "We have her on a ventilator," the resident tells her. "This morning she kept asking for someone named Harvey, and when I took off her mask she coughed blood in my face."
"Yuck," says the county-health doctor. "But I don't understand. Why are you calling me?"
"Well," says the resident. "Her chest X-rays show a grossly extended mediastinum. I'm sure you know what that could mean."
"Wow," she says, catching her breath. "Okay, I'm calling my team and we'll be right over." Second-stage anthrax isn't a subtle disease, she knows. And the first place it shows up is the lymph nodes in the chest. While the doctor is still on the freeway, she gets another call from the Bellflower veterinarian, who says he just spent an hour researching blue pig sores on the Internet. "And the symptoms are classic," he tells her. "The pig died of anthrax."
"Why do you say that?" asks the doctor.
"Have you heard of Sverdlovsk?"
As a matter of fact, she has. She'd had a lecture on it in medical school, and it gave her nightmares for a week. Sverdlovsk was the Ural Mountains town where the Bolsheviks executed Czar Nicholas II and his whole family. More recently it was also the site of a secret Soviet plant for manufacturing anthrax. In April 1979, maintenance workers removed clogged filters from the plant exhaust vent and then left a note telling the next shift to re-install clean filters before resuming production. The incoming crew missed the note and ran the plant without any filters for perhaps an hour, allowing perhaps a gram (one-twenty-eighth of an ounce) of weapons-grade anthrax to drift downwind in a long, invisible plume over fields, worker housing and a ceramics factory. Two days later, farmers started finding pigs covered with blue sores and dead sheep all over the place. Two days after that, people began showing up at hospitals, their skin blue, coughing up blood, complaining that their lungs were on fire, sweating profusely, and then in some cases dying on the spot. When pathologists did autopsies, they were stunned to discover that the victims' lungs had turned to jelly or that their brains were enveloped in bright-red sheaths.
No one in the West ever knew for sure how many people died in Sverdlovsk (the general in charge of the anthrax plant killed himself as soon as people started dying, and the KGB changed all the death certificates from anthrax to "food poisoning"), but estimates ranged from 68 to 300 or more. In an effort to limit the spread of the disease, the military ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Low-flying aircraft sprayed chemicals over the fields and trees, while workers covered grassy areas with asphalt and lined ditches with concrete. All the local dogs were captured and killed. Because many victims died at home, authorities came to victims' houses, doused their bodies in bleach, wrapped them in plastic and hauled them away for burial. Then they took all the bed sheets and sprayed the dishes. A few days later, they dug up all the bodies and washed them all over again.
AS SOON AS THE COUNTY-HEALTH doctor arrives at the intensive care unit of UCLA's medical center, the first thing she sees is a social worker talking in the hallway to a bearded man with trembling hands and a stricken face. Inside intensive care, the nurses are distraught. "The woman died 15 minutes ago," the shaken resident tells the young doctor. "The blood culture is back now, too — and it's positive for anthrax."
The county-health doctor immediately reaches for her cell phone to notify her office, but events have already overtaken her. Twenty minutes earlier, a San Bernardino Fire Department HAZMAT team reported from the Mojave that they had just examined a Cessna 172 on Cadiz Dry Lake and the aircraft venturi (vacuum generator) was covered with a fine tan powder that appeared to be anthrax.
With that announcement, phone lines light up all over the state and country as calls go out to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the FBI, the Terrorism Early Warning group, the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, the White House, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, the governor, the mayor, the Coast Guard and the FAA. Shortly thereafter, behind an 8-foot fence topped with coiled razor wire at Los Angeles County's emergency operations center, on Eastern Avenue near Cal State Los Angeles, staffers rush to their seats behind a big horseshoe-shaped console filled with phones and computers. A similar scene takes place at the city emergency operations center, four stories under City Hall. In the meantime, over at LAX, a National Weather Service Doppler-radar operator pores over C-band weather tapes for the previous 48 hours until, around 11 p.m., he finally finds what he's been searching for — a small aircraft flying across LAX from north to south followed by a faint, rapidly vanishing trace, as might be caused by a mini-rain squall.
"There it is," he says.
"There's what?" asks the FAA supervisor.
"The cloud of anthrax. It starts over Brentwood, then goes in a straight line all the way to Long Beach."
"God help us," says the supervisor, reaching for the open line to NORAD.
Seven minutes later, at Fresno Air National Guard Base, an F-16 pilot throws down his coffee, runs from the ready room, slips into the cramped cockpit of the duty aircraft, fires up the engine and starts rolling even before he's fully strapped in. As soon as he reaches the runway, he punches in the afterburner, and the plane is airborne within eight seconds. Pulling back on the side-mounted control stick, the pilot puts the plane in a near-vertical climb. By the time the aircraft reaches the end of the field, it is already passing through 8,000 feet.
A little more than ten minutes after that, sleeping residents of Los Angeles are startled awake by repeated sonic booms as F-16s begin intercepting bewildered airline pilots who haven't quite gotten the word about the attack and thus are slightly off course, at the wrong altitude or squawking an incorrect transponder code. When residents turn on their TVs, they are astonished to see reporters wearing (useless but dramatic) khaki-colored war-surplus gas masks and doing standup commentary from Westside intersections as police cruisers and fire trucks, sirens wailing and lights flashing, race up and down the streets.
Relying on a Monterey Institute study showing that in light winds aerosolized anthrax spores tend to settle on the ground within the first 14 miles, a Sheriff's captain in the county emergency operations center draws a 27-by-14-mile rectangle on a map of L.A. County and arbitrarily designates it the "containment zone." The idea is to put squad cars at major intersections and wooden barricades everywhere else. He doesn't dare call it a quarantine. He might have been able to do that 100 years ago, when Americans still understood the dangers of polio or smallpox, but today most people would just tell the cop to screw himself.
As for evacuation, that is an even worse solution for a non-contagious disease like anthrax. It would take weeks to clear a city like Los Angeles — presuming you had a place to put 3.8 million former residents. Instead, starting at 6 a.m., an LAPD spokesman begins making a series of announcements on television, radio and all emergency frequencies telling residents to "shelter in place" — stay calm, stay indoors, tape the windows, bring in the pets, close chimney dampers, put towels in any door cracks and await further word.
At 10 a.m. Sunday morning, the Centers for Disease Control holds a press conference to announce that researchers at the Army infectious diseases research lab at Fort Detrich, Maryland, have just confirmed that the substance found on the Cessna venturi is finely milled, weapons-grade anthrax. Judging from the size of the stainless-steel container (the size of a 5-pound bag of flour), they estimate the weight of the release at 2 kilograms.
Over at Caltech, an assistant professor in biotechnology quickly figures out that a package that size amounts to some 10 trillion spores. Then referencing a Defense Intelligence Agency study that concluded that 50 percent of the people who inhale 25,000 spores apiece will die, the professor tells a reporter on live TV that there was enough anthrax on that plane to kill "200 million souls" (which is true enough only if one assumes that every single spore ends up in someone's lungs and not, as most do, on trees, lawns, roads and roofs).
People have been leaving Los Angeles all night, but with that announcement the floodgates break. Residents of the containment-zone area burst through wooden barricades, hurtle though intersections, ignore both traffic cops and signal lights, and fly up freeway on-ramps, only to discover a sea of brake lights. When northbound lanes on Interstate 5 become gridlocked, motorists drive on shoulders, median strips, or even switch over to the southbound lanes, instantly turning them into northbound lanes too.
Within hours there is a 400-mile traffic jam between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Gas stations quickly run out of fuel, but when station owners put up "No Gas" signs, infuriated motorists, in one instance, push over their gas pumps and, in another, shoot their windows out. Alternative routes quickly become impassable, too, as local vigilantes block routes into their towns with school buses and trailer trucks to keep out "infected" motorists from L.A.
Recognizing that the freeways are unusable, some Los Angeles residents try to get out of the city on surface streets, two-lane roads, dirt roads and, for those with four-wheel drive, fire trails over the San Gabriels. One white-faced driver takes a turn so fast on Angeles Crest Highway that he flies off a cliff in a cloud of dust, a tragedy that doesn't even cause the cars behind him to slow down. Raggedy fleets of small boats and large yachts pour out of marinas in Long Beach, San Pedro and Marina del Rey, headed for Catalina, San Diego, or any other place as long as it isn't L.A. In Venice, three young men break into a sporting-goods store, steal three kayaks and paddle out to sea.
In the meantime, at governmental offices in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Washington, officials at all levels pull out their bioterrorism playbooks, open the pages to anthrax and start issuing commands. All incoming flights are diverted from LAX, and all outgoing flights are stopped on the ramp. M-16-toting National Guard troops run through the corridors, while bomb-sniffing dogs jump over ticket counters and paw through the luggage. At the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Coast Guard patrol boats fly across the water, while 18-year-old apprentice seamen, in flak jackets and steel helmets, finger the triggers of their .60-caliber machine guns. Beneath the surface, scuba divers swim through the murky water under 400-foot container ships, looking for planted mines. On the docks, harried inspectors turn up the sensitivity on their cargo-container radiation detectors until they start getting false hits on natural background radiation in Italian granite countertops and Spanish ceramic tiles.
The FAA grounds all non-scheduled privately owned small planes within California, which so irritates one actor with his own Citation II at Santa Monica Airport that he takes off at 2 a.m. without permission, flying low and fast to the east, without navigation lights and ignoring repeated requests from the tower to land. He makes it all the way to Altadena before an Air National Guard F-16 pilot equipped with infrared sensors and night-vision goggles slips in behind him and fires off two quick bursts from a six-barrel cannon, sending the Citation II crashing into the flanks of Mount Wilson. The ensuing brushfire burns all the way to the solar observatory.
In Washington, D.C., the secretary of defense puts military bases on the highest alert level — Threat Condition Delta (used when a terror attack has just happened or is currently in progress) — while radar-equipped Navy E2 Hawkeye early-warning aircraft fly offshore and a Los Angeles class fast-attack submarine cruises at periscope depth though the San Pedro channel. The governor mobilizes the National Guard to protect 450 "high risk" targets, ranging from Metro Rail to City Hall. Dozens of FBI agents, wearing bulletproof vests and carrying shotguns, take up stations around the Federal Building in Westwood. Humvees equipped with Stinger ground-to-air missiles surround the Port of Los Angeles and LAX.
THE POLICE, WHO ARE USED TO BEing in charge in any emergency, find it hard to adjust to a situation where other emergency personnel show up and take control. At the Farmers Market, a health worker orders a policeman who walked through a taped-off hazard zone to undress for decontamination. When the policeman indignantly refuses, she shrugs and hoses him down with disinfectant, causing the policeman to punch her out. Other health workers rush to her defense, and by the time a police lieutenant arrives to defuse the situation, the cop is standing in the middle of a circle of a dozen angry paramedics, waving his gun and shouting, "You're all under arrest."
At the county emergency operations center, a supply officer sends out a request for tents, 100,000 beds, blankets, bottled water and 20,000 body bags. When the county announces a hot line for reporting dangerous substances, frantic citizens overload it with reports of suspicious-looking chalk dust, kitty litter, sheet rock, guacamole, bird droppings, Aspartame, dandruff, cornstarch, Nesquik, Parmesan cheese and nondairy creamer.
Although the CDC sends a 50-ton mobile pharmacy to Los Angeles with antibiotics, vaccines and medical supplies, it's still not enough, as thousands of people descend on distribution centers in doctors' offices, hospitals, council members' offices, recreation offices and schools, demanding 60-day supplies of ciprofloxacin for themselves and their pets. When the cipro runs short, nurses begin substituting other antibiotics, such as doxycycline, amoxicillin and penicillin, causing some people to complain they're being patronized with "sugar pills."
As hospital beds, in short supply at the best of times, quickly fill up, patients spill over into hospital corridors. When lab technicians at USC County General run out of petri dishes, one anguished family pelts them with stool and urine samples. At another clinic, nurses get so tired of the threats and abuse that, when their shifts end, they walk permanently off their jobs, taking all the remaining cipro to treat their own families.
On the streets, vendors sell $139 "ultraviolet flashlights," which they claim will "vaporize" anthrax spores. People jam health-food stores to buy oil of oregano (said to cure anthrax when applied to the tongue). Animal Control and pet stores are inundated with calls from customers trying to find out where to get stretch-fabric muzzle masks for dogs, "like the kind they sell in Israel." A young man in a white jump suit, claiming to be from the health department, goes door-to-door in a Culver City singles complex, telling young women to disrobe so he can wash off "all those nasty anthrax spores." Fearful of contamination, some people iron their relief checks or, even worse, put them in the microwave, causing at least three kitchen fires. Despite repeated assurances from Department of Water and Power officials that the water supply is safe, many residents insist on drinking only bottled water, at $10 a liter and up. In some fancier Westside neighborhoods, drug scalpers go door-to-door selling fake ciprofloxacin to desperate homeowners for $50 a pill.
SUNDAY, MARCH 9, IS THE FOURTH DAY of the attack — the day when, traditionally, anthrax victims first begin to die. Except for the tolling of church bells, the city is quiet, and the streets are empty of everything but occasional emergency vehicles and the carcasses of dead birds. Most people huddle behind windows and doors sealed tight with duct tape, watching continuous news coverage on television or listening to "America the Beautiful" and "Amazing Grace" endlessly replayed on the radio. A cable channel plays nothing but prayer services for Los Angeles, broadcast from cathedrals and temples around the world.
Hospitals can't begin to cope with all the people clamoring for admission, so most anthrax victims are redirected to Staples Center, the convention center, high school gyms, and Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral downtown. Doctors engage in triage, withholding antibiotics (and, in some cases, ventilators) from people whose symptoms are so advanced they are already beyond hope in order to save the remaining stocks of cipro for people with the early mild symptoms of anthrax and who need immediate treatment before the toxin buildup proves fatal.
One TV reporter, in a well-intended effort to keep the public informed, does an in-depth piece explaining exactly how anthrax kills its victims. But the details are so horrific the station manager refuses to run it on the grounds that it will "scare the fucking shit out of everyone in town." In fact, as the reporter tells his wife in bed that night, the details are "pretty damn scary." As soon as anyone inhales anthrax spores, they immediately begin making their way to the lymph nodes in the midchest area (mediastinum), where they cause symptoms resembling the flu. Sometimes, after a few days, the symptoms go away, a development that leads some victims to think they're getting better. In fact, what is really happening is that the spores are germinating into toxin-producing bacteria that then start to break down the thoracic viscera, causing the mediastinum to swell, which so compresses the lungs that the victims find it hard to breathe. In short order, the toxins hit a critical level, after which there's no treatment and no cure. Blood vessels leak so badly that low blood pressure sends the victim into shock. At the same time, the tissue around the brain fills with blood, causing delirium and coma. The only consolation — if you want to call it that — is that death is swift and sure.
Although public officials repeatedly tell citizens to stay calm and that there is "no cause for panic," that position becomes totally untenable when, on the fourth day, 53 people die, followed by 310 on the fifth, 1,137 on the sixth and 6,790 on the seventh. On day eight, 15,404 die. Although some TV anchors, in an effort to convey the psychological impact of the deaths, variously compare it to a nuclear explosion, an asteroid impact and a "cosmic gut shot from God's Saturday night special," others frankly admit it's beyond description and limit themselves to bare facts — the morgue so crowded it has to close its doors, cemetery workers digging graves round the clock, crematoriums running day and night.
Despite requests from public officials that residents lay low, long rows of cars, packed high with suitcases, jewelry, heirlooms and photographs, pour out of the city. The people who stay behind remain indoors, poring over newspaper lists of the people who died — a fatal laundry list of popular performers, athletes and politicians as well as middle school teachers, defense lawyers, emergency-room nurses, policemen, finish carpenters, performance artists, expectant mothers, wealthy studio heads, poor anti-war activists, cartoonists made obsolete by computers, supermarket checkers, elderly widows, and alcoholics living under freeway ramps in filthy sleeping bags. In the meantime, public services grind to a halt. Buses quit running. Some police and firemen stop showing up for duty. When finally even the sanitation workers go home, raw sewage begins to pour into Santa Monica Bay.
Acting on the assumption that most urban residents need constant reassurance from authorities in times of crisis, politicians take to the airwaves with dismaying frequency, the mayor praising the citizens of the city for showing the same kind of heroic stoicism the British displayed during the London blitz, the governor asserting that Los Angeles will emerge from the disaster as a stronger, better city, and the president announcing that he is praying for the city with all his heart.
If the citizens of Los Angeles are comforted by such remarks, they don't show it. Three people jump to their deaths out of mid-Wilshire high-rises. Suicide-prevention centers are deluged with calls from people wondering if life is worth living and if it wouldn't be better just to shoot themselves on the spot. Some people drink themselves insensible, while others descend on pharmacies, demanding Zoloft, Paxil and Prozac; Xanax, Valium and Inderal. In an effort to help calm the public, TV stations run interviews with psychologists and psychiatrists, who blandly advise residents to "live normally," "talk about their feelings," limit their exposure to the news media, and distract themselves with board games, jigsaw puzzles and "humorous books."
To the surprise of their friends and neighbors, a few writers and artists suddenly seem unaccountably happy. Prior to the anthrax attack, they'd reached middle age with little to show for it while their college classmates had gone on to become doctors, lawyers and founders of powerful companies. Now that it appears that "we're all going to die anyway," their lifelong failures don't matter anymore and, consequently, their spirits soar.
Others focus their emotions on the need to strike back, although it isn't clear at whom, since the FBI hasn't caught anyone yet. Even so, they post furious tirades on FreeRepublic.com urging the president to kill all "ragheads and camel drivers," "nuke Mecca" and turn Baghdad into "a glass parking lot." Some other, less-well-wrapped citizens methodically go through the Los Angeles phone directory, calling everyone named Mohammed, telling him to "get your ass out of the country and that goes for your family too."
AS HAPPENS WITH EVERY EPIDEMIC, the anthrax death rate follows a bell-shaped curve. On the eighth day the death rate peaks; on the ninth day it drops to 8,105, to 3,721 on the 10th, to 1,113 on the 11th and to 307 on the 12th. After two weeks, it is down to nothing at all. Although the plague is over, the city is not unchanged. Nearly 38,000 people have died.
As for the post-disaster cleanup, authorities are bewildered, and history proves no help. Some dolefully point to the British experience in WWII when Winston Churchill ordered anthrax bombs exploded near 60 tethered sheep on a small island off the Scottish coast. As expected, within three days the sheep began to die. What was less expected was that the island remained uninhabitable for nearly 50 years. It wasn't until 1990 that workers made the place safe again by burning the infected topsoil and soaking the remainder in 280 tons of formaldehyde.
Others optimistically argue that no outdoor cleanup is needed at all, given that any remaining spores will have long ago settled to the ground, drifted off to Riverside or Palm Springs, or, most likely of all, wafted into the stratosphere only to come down weeks and months later on remote oceans, forests and mountain ranges.
While state and federal officials argue over what to do, city workers breathing through HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters prowl the streets day and night in spray trucks, washing any street spores into the storm drains (a policy angrily denounced by an animal-rights advocacy group as a "public relations Band-Aid" that will result in "riparian genocide" for L.A. River wildlife while still not saving any human lives). Some citizens, tired of waiting for the city to move forward, simply wash off their roofs with garden hoses, an apparent common-sense solution that nonetheless re-aerosolizes so many spores that 18 new anthrax infections occur.
Weeks later, epidemiologists and meteorologists are still trying to figure out what to do about the contamination problem, when the first of three fierce spring storms sweeps through the area, giving people a much-needed sense that the city of Los Angeles, having paid grievously for its sins, is now being washed clean. And by the time the storms are over, it seems that in many ways it is. Repeated testing shows few airborne spores. As for surface spores, they are quickly rendered harmless by L.A.'s endless sun.
IN THE WEEKS AND MONTHS THAT follow, a new city is born in L.A., albeit a much poorer one. To keep the port closed costs a billion dollars a day, and the numbers just rise exponentially after that. In the meantime, ships are stranded. Importers go broke. Just-in-time manufacturers shut down their assembly lines. The FBI insists that every container coming into the country be inspected (up from one-half of 1 percent before the attack), while the Customs Service suggests that attempting to inspect even as much as 20 percent of the incoming containers will totally bankrupt the nation's economy.
Effects from the catastrophe ripple through every part of the city. Film and television production either shuts down completely, or moves en masse to Canada. Amusement parks close their doors. After some downtown skyscrapers lose most of their tenants, motorists discover they can park at will on city streets on which pedestrians have now become so rare that the central library and major museums are open only two days a week. Trying to drum up business, the Beverly Center hires a fleet of vans, available on call to pick up anyone who wants to go shopping there. With dinner reservations at an all-time low, some (formerly) expensive restaurants cut their wine prices by two-thirds. And the Dodgers, citing the difficulty of getting other teams to play in Chavez Ravine, move their schedule to Bakersfield, where, for reasons no one can figure out, they win 22 of their first 25 games.
Psychologically, the entire city has changed. Before the attack, homeowners could count on steadily rising property values, but it soon becomes clear that no one wants to live in an anthrax containment zone. As housing prices continue to fall, some people are shattered to discover that they owe far more on their mortgages than their houses are now worth, causing some of them simply to drop their keys in the mailbox and move out — many to downtown, which, as a consequence, finally gets the revival that decades of economic stimulus and public relations failed to produce. Their former gardeners and housekeepers, more attracted by the good housing than they are fearful of anthrax, happily move in.
It also becomes clear that the citizens of Los Angeles have changed in more subtle ways. Reality TV tanks, as the utter banality of shows like Survivor and The Bachelor finally sinks in. Dozens of MBA students from UCLA, USC and Pepperdine change their majors to psychology, religious studies and health care. Sexual activity spikes while rapes, homicides and crime in general decline. Finally, a paunchy bearded screenwriter, both his high-powered agent and their deal dead, pulls out an old half-finished novel and starts all over again. His theme this time around: the unfairness of life, the nearness of death and the role of fate in human affairs.
Although this scenario is a fictional one, it is based in large part on real events, emergency plans, and interviews with politicians, law-enforcement and terrorism experts.