ANNAPOLIS – With less than 24 hours until American troops could be authorized to march toward Baghdad, Maryland officials are bunkering down for possible retaliation on Free State soil.
Patrols have been stepped up around the State House, with guards toting 12-gauge shotguns on their shoulders. The University of Maryland is implementing a testing schedule for its emergency sirens. And security personnel are again conducting random vehicle searches at BWI.
But a word of advice, straight from Gov. Robert Ehrlich: Don’t buy duct tape.
“We want to reinforce the notion that this is a serious time,” Ehrlich said. “The president set the stakes last night.”
In a hastily called news conference Tuesday, Ehrlich, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, State Police Lt. Col. David Czorapinski and state Homeland Security Director Stephen T. Moyer discussed long-term precautions with an impending war.
Already in place: 24-hour operation of the state’s terrorism command center and tip lines, state police tactical squads on standby if needed and increased patrols of critical facilities – including the Port of Baltimore.
“Marylanders should practice increased vigilance while going about their daily routines,” Ehrlich said.
President Bush has given Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his sons, Odai and Qusai, until 8 p.m. Thursday to flee Iraq or face war “commenced at a time of our choosing.”
“The regime has a history of reckless aggression in the Middle East,” Bush said. “It has a deep hatred of America and our friends. And it has aided, trained and harbored terrorists, including operatives of al-Qaida.”
The Department of Homeland Security elevated its terror threat level to orange, or “high,” following Bush’s address Monday night. While officials say no specific threat exists, they anticipate possible attacks by al-Qaida operatives once military action begins.
Orange is the second-highest level on the federal terror alert scale. Code Red, or “severe,” signifies an imminent attack, but that level has never been used.
The elevated terror alert came just two weeks after it had been lowered to “yellow.”
Ehrlich’s administration followed federal guidelines Tuesday, upping Maryland’s Threat Alert System from “yellow” to “orange” status. He encouraged residents who witness suspicious activities to contact security officials.
“Maryland is ready, Maryland is poised,” Moyer said. “The No. 1 function of government is to protect its people.”
In College Park, authorities are starting monthly siren tests to alert the campus community of emergencies. The first test is scheduled for April 2 at 11:55 a.m. and should be audible for 30 seconds.
Each Wednesday afterward at 5 p.m., the campus will conduct a short test for no more than 10 seconds, audible only to those standing near a siren.
“(The September 2001 tornado) got the university thinking about ways to warn our public about an emergency,” said Maj. Jay Gruber with the University Police. The siren, installed last December, has been tested in the past, but not on a regular schedule.
Security personnel at Baltimore/Washington International Airport have restarted random vehicle searches. K-9 patrols have also been increased, said airport spokeswoman Melanie Miller.
“We were at Orange for quite a while,” Miller said. “It went down, and now it’s back up. We’ve got this down.”
As anxiety flares, so does patriotism. An increasing number of business sign boards around the region read “Support Our Troops” or “God Bless America,” while some people decorate cars with American flags not seen since the days after Sept. 11.
And one Maryland high school student is even denouncing those who don’t support the president.
Andrew Kiser, 18, a senior at Broadneck Senior High School in Anne Arundel, lettered his Ford Astro’s van windows with “No Dixie Chicks,” a reference to the country singers.
Last week, lead singer Natalie Maines told a concert audience that she was ashamed Bush hails from Texas, the same home state shared by the trio.
Maines later apologized. But that doesn’t matter to Kiser.
“I did it to show everybody how I feel,” Kiser said. “(Protesters) have a right to free speech and so do I. I support everything that Bush does.”
Capital News Service reporters Tom LoBianco and Sarah Hoye contributed to this report.