Scarred but Strong

Article excerpt

Byline: Hugh Aynesworth

One of an occasional series

SAN ANTONIO - Folks here were stunned not only by the horror in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania last September 11, but by the arrest within hours of a local Saudi-born doctor who authorities hinted might have been involved in the terrorist scourge.

"I thought, `Oh, my God.' People right here were part of that inhuman attack," said retired salesman George Dwight. "I just wandered around for hours - didn't want to go home."

Scores of San Antonio residents told The Washington Times they experienced the same emotions: disbelief, fear, revulsion, anger.

"We all needed leadership, someone to believe in," said Gerald Anderson, who said he almost immediately met with three of his closest friends "just to pull a little bit of sensibility together."

San Antonio, the nation's eighth-most-populous city (1.15 million) and one of its most diverse, suffered the same pangs that most other large American cities suffered from the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks. But today, almost four months later, many say the city has come out stronger, more organized and better prepared to face a changing world.

Thousands still regularly flock to the Alamo or party and dine along the city's famed downtown Riverwalk. Fans continue to pack Spurs basketball games. Even the most gregarious, though, will acknowledge daily life has become a bit more subdued.

"My family still goes most of the places we have always gone to," said a young browser at Half Price Books on Broadway, just north of downtown. "But we certainly pay more attention to everybody and everything around us."

Psychologically, San Antonio seems to have itself in control. Spiritually, leaders and residents say, the city has never been more attuned to the mood and state of the nation. Financially, though, there is a lot of work to be done.

As in many locales, San Antonio's tourism - which pulls in more than $3 billion annually - has suffered to the point where some predict it will take three years to get back to where it was before September 11.

Airline passengers are fewer. Christmas buying was down and donations to community-aid agencies were less than in recent years. Generally, church attendance has increased and some local auto dealers say they enjoyed heavy December sales volumes, thanks in great part to zero-interest financing deals offered by most U.S. auto manufacturers.

But Joe Krier, director of the local Chamber of Commerce since 1987, said the local economy has not suffered as much as many U.S. cities, partially because of the city's diversity. And unemployment, up nearly a point from last year, still is among the lowest in Texas.

Costs of increased security, overtime for public-service personnel and long-range emergency management planning, equipment and facilities have added many more millions to the city's budget. Just before Christmas, city and county officials named a new homeland-security chief and petitioned the federal government for $66 million to finance a bioterrorism-preparedness plan and an ongoing emergency-operations center.

All in all, residents here appear extremely upbeat about the future. Several spoke of a spirit of togetherness and concern, which many say is a blessing to emerge from the rubble.

"I think it has changed people's personalities," said Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed. "I see people caring more about fellow Americans, talking more. Feeling for them. It certainly increases my zeal for my job."

Mrs. Reed showed another side when the city was dealing with several bomb and anthrax threats in those troubled early days. She organized a task force and promised hoaxers she "was going to nail" them. The fakers stopped calling almost immediately. "Maybe a tough-talking lady D.A. can be a good thing," she said. …