American flags fly at Riverfront Park during the Freestate Happy Wanderers walking club's 9/11 memorial 5-kilometer walk in Laurel Friday, Sept. 11, 2015. (Photo by Steve Ruark)
American flags fly at Riverfront Park during the Freestate Happy Wanderers walking club's 9/11 memorial 5-kilometer walk in Laurel Friday, Sept. 11, 2015. (Photo by Steve Ruark) (Steve Ruark / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Fifteen years after the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 rippled across the nation, the city of Laurel continues to honor those who lost their lives in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa., while educating the community on emergency preparedness in both man-made and natural disasters.

Throughout September, now designated National Preparedness Month, city officials join state and local governments encouraging residents to learn more about emergency management and the necessary precautions to take should a disaster occur.

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Laurel City Administrator Marty Flemion said this year's theme of National Preparedness Month, "Don't Wait, Communicate. Make Your Emergency Plan Today," is broken down over five weeks, which began Aug. 28. The emergency awareness explores preparedness through promotion, family and friends, service and individuals and ends with National PrepareAthon Day Sept. 25 to 30.

Baltimore County man keeping the promise to remember 9/11

Chuck Ritz did not know anyone killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, but he said "I think it changed my life. … It made me aware of how short life is," and he's determined to honor those killed that day and in the wars since then.

The 40-year city employee and former director of emergency management said preparedness is crucial to the overall safety and well being of his fellow colleagues and residents.

"Everybody needs to take some level of responsibility for their ability to sustain themselves and their family during a critical event," Flemion said. "There are some expectations before first responders can get to you. We're urging everybody to make sure that they can sustain themselves for at least three, preferably five, days with everything they need to survive and recover from an emergency."

This includes food, water, a flashlight with extra batteries and a first aid kit.

The 9/11 plane hijackings and terrorist attacks changed everything, Flemion said, and were a wake-up call for emergency preparedness. At the time, Flemion was worked as a project manager for the Laurel Department of Public Works. He was visiting his in-laws in Ohio when he heard that two planes had crashed into New York's Twin Towers. Reports later confirmed that another plane crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth in a field in Pennsylvania.

The family was at a county fair farm animal judging event when the festivities were interrupted.

"While the judging was going on, they interrupted on the PA system, saying that a plane had crashed into one of the towers," Flemion said. "At lunchtime, we went back to my in-laws' farm, turned on the TV and were dumbfounded. We just couldn't believe it."

When he returned to Laurel shortly after, Flemion said he had already noticed a darker, emotional atmosphere in his beloved hometown. City officials had learned that some of the 9/11 perpetrators held planning sessions while staying in the Valencia Motel off Route 1, more tough news to swallow for the city of Laurel.

"After that event, it just didn't seem like anybody relaxed anymore. The environment was permanently changed," he said.

Days, weeks and months after 9/11, Laurel resident Richard Blankenship, who was a Howard County volunteer firefighter at the time, said he remembered dozens of emergency calls flooding the Fire Department, each made by scared and concerned citizens. Department personnel responded to several reports of unknown packages in the mail, white powders or boxes on properties.

"It got to the point where we ran so many calls that the county got the police department, fire department and others together who handled all the calls [to hold off on responding] unless there was something serious they already knew about," said Blankenship, who is now a current Laurel volunteer firefighter.

Pending an investigation, Blankenship said officials then determined if any additional equipment was necessary at the scene, such as fire trucks and ambulances. Although the fire department's prior preparedness training was effective in emergency response time and assistance, the events of 9/11 were still unimaginable.

"Nobody expected that to happen," Blankenship said. "Are you really prepared for that? How do you prepare for that? You prepare for any kind of emergency and you take it as it comes."

Evolution of city preparedness

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Both Flemion and Blankenship agree that the city has adapted its security features and emergency management and preparedness over the last 15 years.

Once an open building, the Laurel Municipal Center, for example, has increased its security for employees and visitors by establishing a checkpoint, which is placed behind a locked door and glass partition.

City of Laurel to remember 15th anniversary of Sept. 11

Several events are planned in Laurel on Sept. 11 to honor those who lost their lives in the terrorists attacks 15 years ago. The city will also unveil its new 9/11 monument outside the Laurel Municipal Center.

Before 9/11, city hall was completely open access, said Laurel Mayor Craig Moe.

"Our entrances have cameras now," Moe said. "You can't just walk in city hall and walk wherever you want to. You have to check in at the reception desk. It's not just for the mayor, the council and the staff. It's for the people who are coming in to express their views and take part in their government in making sure that they're safe."

Today's level of preparedness is an absolute benefit, Flemion added, with emergency services information easily accessible to all residents on the city's website.

At www.cityoflaurel.org/em, residents can learn how to prepare for an emergency, including citywide emergency alerts and exercises; how to make an emergency kit, emergency routes and operations guide as well as the strategies of the city's Emergency Operations Center.

Natural disasters, which have affected Laurel in recent years, are incorporated into emergency planning, Flemion said.The city responded to a tornado in 2015, flooding in 2013 and an earthquake in 2011.

"Before earthquakes hit this region, we didn't even have earthquakes on our hazards list. Now, its on there," Flemion said. "There are storms and floods where the city of Laurel is roughly at the base of the major reservoir. There are certainly hazards that go well beyond acts of terrorism that people need to be prepared for."

Work continues after the initial emergency, according to staff of Servpro, a cleaning and restoration company. Located in branches across the state, Servpro of Laurel's marketing manager, Richard Wolff, said the company specializes in year-round preparation. While crews don't investigate crimes or put out fires, he said, Servpro helps ease the cleanup and repair process for both commercial and residential customers.

"Each representative goes to 12 businesses a day," Wolff said, such as apartment buildings, auto dealerships, elderly care facilities and daycare centers. "We preach to tailor preparedness specifically to what is needed for them along the lines of do's and don'ts. We offer disaster relief."

Throughout the city of Laurel, Greenbelt and Beltsville, Wolff said Servpro reps have responded to small-scale emergency cleanups like a home's overflowing toilet, to large disasters, like Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Similar to the city's efforts, Servpro assists commercial properties and residences in developing an emergency plan that best suites them.

"We get people structured and help them rebuild," Wolff said. "It's all up to the homeowner, landlords, tenants or whoever. We try to be active in whatever is going on. We're just trying to educate. That's really the common theme on preparedness: educate."

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Remembering 9/11

On Sunday, Sept. 11, events across the city of Laurel will be held in remembrance of a day many will never forget.

At 8:15 and 11 a.m., a 9/11 memorial service will be held at First United Methodist Church of Laurel, 424 Main St.; from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., there will be a first responder vehicle show at the Towne Centre at Laurel, 14712 Baltimore Ave.; at noon, Mission BBQ will have a flag raising ceremony at the Towne Center; and from 2 to 4 p.m., American Legion Post 60, 2 Main St., will have a 9/11 memorial service.

The Freestate Happy Wanderers will host a group walk to commemorate 9/11. Participants can sign up at McCullough Field, Eighth and Montgomery street, at 9:30 a.m., with the walk beginning near Riverfront Park at 10 a.m. A lunch is also planned at Red, Hot & Blue on Main Street following the walk.

All events will lead up to the unveiling of the city's new 9/11 monument by Mayor Craig Moe and city council members at 5 p.m. during an interfaith service outside the Laurel Municipal Center, 8103 Sandy Spring Road.

The monument will be made from a piece of steel from the World Trade Center, which the city received from the New Jersey Port Authority.

"We were successful in obtaining a piece of the high beam, about 44 pounds," Flemion said. "It is stressed in that it looks like it has been exposed to extreme heat. It is weathered with rust.

"The intent of the memorial, to me, is to continue to remember the sacrifices that were made and the innocence that was lost on Sept. 11," Flemion said.

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