Readers might recall that during the election season last year, the Center for Investigative Reporting published an in-depth look at how Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s modest hometown in Alaska spent the millions of dollars it had received in antiterrorism grants since Congress began doling them out in huge portions to cities big and small after Sept. 11.
We reported the story using detailed grant spending records obtained from officials in Alaska through the state’s open-government laws. Recently, we decided to go back and have a second look at the documents after another tiny Alaska community, Skagway, population 823 (see photo at right), made a celebrity appearance in episode seven of ABC’s ongoing reality television show “Homeland Security USA.”
Skagway plays host to what is probably the most isolated point of entry into the United States, guarded resolutely by a pair of Customs and Border Protection officers. As the show’s narrator describes it, Skagway is “nestled between the frozen peaks and icy waters of the Yukon just a snowball’s throw from Canada.”
Despite its small size, records show that between 2003 and 2007, Skagway received at least $1.2 million in homeland security grants from the federal government. The town was awarded another $352,414 by the feds between 2002 and 2005 through the Assistance to Firefighters Grant, for which fire departments apply directly from the Department of Homeland Security.
Town leaders could argue that their border crossing is as important to protect as any other, but Skagway is so small and lightly populated that its police force has just four officers. The Skagway Fire Department has only two full-time employees, otherwise relying on volunteers to answer “over 200 calls annually,” according to its website.
The cash infusions from homeland security allowed Skagway to purchase a $54,000 “incident response vehicle,” an $842 pair of stabilized binoculars and $1,700 worth of traffic cones. Another $13,600 was spent on ballistic shin guards, shields and level IV vests, and $2,000 covered hazmat suits, gloves and chemical-resistant boots, while even more went toward decontamination showers and shelters.
Nearly $4,000 allowed the purchase of a personal identification badging system (we’re struggling to imagine that Skagway’s municipal workforce is large enough to lose track of who’s who), $9,000 went toward constructing new fences and gates and a similar amount covered the deployment of surveillance cameras, plus $7,300 for a thermal-image camera. Another $171,268 helped cover two 32-foot Packcat public safety boats (one of which you can see at the bottom of the page here), at least $186,223 was spent on new digital radio equipment and another $498,000 went toward purchasing a communications base system.
A CBP officer from the Department of Homeland Security named Boyd Worley guards the quiet Skagway border outpost with his wife. Both became federal employees in the 1970s, and even their daughter works for the department at the Port of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands off the southwest corner of Alaska’s mainland.
The Skagway port of entry doesn’t experience a lot of action, which is why the producers of “Homeland Security USA” thought it would be amusing to profile the border point in the first place. As Boyd Worley says, hardly 30 trucks a day pass through the area. Conversely, there are about 50 million border crossings each year from Tijuana, Mexico, into the United States via the San Ysidro port of entry near San Diego.
“Skagway may be a small port far, far away from the lower 48 states,” Worley tells the camera. “But still, if a terrorist were trying to get into the U.S., once he got by us, it’s domestic all the way to Washington, D.C.”
As the show’s producers ride along with Worley in his Chevrolet Suburban, he tells them how sometimes motorists traveling the highway toward Skagway don’t realize they’re approaching a roadblock until the last minute when they see the sign. “They freak out and throw their dope out the window,” Worley snickers.
Suddenly he gasps and turns serious.
“Oh my God, right here in front of us,” he exclaims. “Look at that.” It’s a boulder that had fallen from a nearby rock face at some point in the past and is just sitting right there in the middle of the highway! “That’s quite a boulder,” he adds. What will the Department of Homeland Security do? “What we’ll do is go back to the station and phone the Department of Transportation guys,” Worley assures viewers. But the oversized rock will have to wait a little while, he says, because everyone in that equally small office had punched out at 3 p.m.
Whether any town in Alaska is likely to be hit by terrorists or not, the state on a per-capita basis is among the top recipients in the United States of the most common emergency preparedness grants distributed annually by the Department of Homeland Security. Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s sparsely populated home state of Wyoming is one of the few that ranks higher than Alaska in per-person grant spending.
Between 2002 and 2008, the federal government awarded Alaska at least $87 million dollars in major grants, which state officials then distributed to local cities and boroughs (the state’s equivalent of a county). Alaska received another $18.2 million from the assistant to firefighters program during that period.
Our story from late last year combined spending totals for Palin’s hometown, Wasilla, population 7,028, and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough that surrounds it. The area has benefited from at least $4.2 million in grant funds over the last five years. Among the purchases were two incident response vehicles costing a combined $1 million. One of the two vehicles, a mobile command communications truck, is specially outfitted with a four-wheel drive chassis, a conference room with a projector screen and an incinerator toilet that operates without water.
Another $130,000 in grant funds was required to outfit the new truck with interoperable radios that could reach the state’s emergency communications system and a satellite for Internet access and video conferences. A local emergency services director told us then that the fire department had trouble figuring out where to keep the vehicle, so it was being stored in a commercial building next door to a firehouse in Wasilla. Leasing expenses for the space at that time cost at least $9,000 in grant funds, records showed. We weren’t able to reach the Central Mat-Su Fire Department recently to find out where the truck is now.
Wasilla also spent $250,000 to build a 100-foot tall communications tower on behalf of its small police department for “detecting, disrupting and responding to acts of terrorism,” city officials wrote in a progress report.
Other small towns in Alaska made high-priced purchases, too, not just Wasilla and Skagway. A city called Whittier located about an hour from Anchorage spent nearly $30,000 on two Anthrax detectors. The state’s Department of Health and Social Services told us there’d never been a reported case of Anthrax infection in Alaska history.
The port city of Bethel spent $6,300 on a “surveillance shotgun listening device,” more than $20,000 on video surveillance for its water treatment plant and $44,000 on seven ATVs. The town has fewer than 6,000 people.