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Terrorism Study Drops a Bombshell on Boise

By Lyndsey Layton and Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 5, 2008; Page A02

Quick: Name the Western U.S. city most vulnerable to a terrorist attack. Is it Los Angeles, with its crowded roads that make quick escape impossible? San Francisco and its iconic bridge? Or Seattle with its Space Needle and busy port?

Try Boise, Idaho, with its, um, potatoes.

A new study funded largely by the Department of Homeland Security ranked 132 American cities according to vulnerability to terrorist attacks. Boise was the only city in the western half of the country to make the top 10.

"To be honest, we're a little bit surprised," said Adam Park, a spokesman for Boise, a landlocked city of 200,000 where the big event this weekend is a Professional Bull Riders invitational.

The rest of the top 10 -- led by New Orleans and including New York and Washington, D.C. -- were largely East Coast cities. Los Angeles was No. 41, followed by San Francisco at 66 and Seattle at 87.

"Is this a typo or what?" asked Bobbie Patterson, executive director of the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Where in the world did this information come from?"

It came from four years of work and a series of mathematical formulas developed by Walter W. Piegorsch, a professor at the University of Arizona, with help from Susan Cutter at the University of South Carolina and Frank Hardisty at Pennsylvania State University. The study was published in December by Risk Analysis, a well-regarded journal.

The researchers assessed the vulnerability of each city to a terrorist attack based on three things: socioeconomics, infrastructure, and geophysical hazards such as the potential for flooding or fire.

The analysis measured not whether a city would make an attractive target to a terrorist but rather how well it could withstand an attack, Piegorsch said.

"This wasn't a question of what places a terrorist wants," Piegorsch said. "The targetability is not an issue here; it's the vulnerability if they were targeted."

The researchers color-coded that vulnerability, assigning green to areas with low vulnerability to a terrorist incident and resulting casualties, yellow to those with high vulnerability but low casualties, and red to those with high marks in both vulnerability and casualties.

A deficiency in one category could overshadow high marks in another. A city with well-built bridges might find itself higher on the list if its high-density population makes evacuations difficult.

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