Houston’s iFest: “What is the security going to be like?”

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by Doug Miller / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on April 16, 2013 at 6:25 PM

Updated Friday, Apr 19 at 10:27 AM

HOUSTON -- On the grassy lawn of Hermann Plaza, a couple of guys spent Tuesday's noon hour playing catch with a pile of baseballs.

The little park has long been a gathering place for an eclectic cross-section of downtown denizens, from vagrants in smelly clothes to office workers in business suits. During the past few years, it's become more like a real park where people sit on a bench to enjoy an outdoor lunch or read a book during a break from work.

Now a perimeter of white tents surrounds the reflecting pool in front of Houston's City Hall, directly across the street from a temporary statue towering over Tranquility Park. Within days, the tents will become booths for vendors serving the thousands of visitors expected for the Houston International Festival.

The springtime tradition always attracts a large, celebratory crowd drawn downtown by free music, plenty of food and drink and what's usually pleasant weather. But this year, the unfortunate truth is that the crowds will gather in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings.

"It makes you wonder, you know," said Carol Nowak, a visitor sitting on a park bench in Hermann Square. "What's next, you know? And what is the security going to be like?"

The answer: Pretty much like it's always been.

After all, Houston police have been successfully guarding against security threats for a very long time, for events as major as international summits and as minor as bike-a-thons.

Dennis Storemski, Houston's director of Public Safety and Homeland Security, says the usual precautions for the festival will be enhanced, possibly with more officers. In particular, they'll watch out for improvised explosive devices -- IEDs -- like the bombs detonated in Boston.

"But we've always been concerned about IEDs," said Storemski. "I mean, even before 9-11. We did the economic summit here, we did the Republican convention here, all these things were things we worry about."

Even reports out of Boston describing the bombs -- pressure cookers packed with nails or ball-bearings hidden inside backpacks -- didn't particularly surprise Storemski, who has spent decades reading about terrorist tactics. Indeed, bomb designs using pressure cookers were outlined in an al Qaeda affiliated magazine describing how to "make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom" two years ago. And secondary explosions like the follow-up blast in Boston have been a terrorist tactic tracing back at least to the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s.

"When you look at what terrorists have done in other places and some of these websites that you can go to, that's exactly what they recommend: Using pressure cookers, using backpacks," he said. "So we didn't see anything new that we didn't know was occurring."

Houston police working security at major events routinely watch out for abandoned packages, Storemski said, but they'll probably become all the more vigilant after what happened in Boston. They may also use bomb sniffing dogs.

"And I'm sure they did the same things in Boston," Storemski said. "The reality is you can't always prevent it. And so, the next step is you're prepared to respond, if you have to."

As always, authorities are asking attendees at this weekend's festival to watch out for abandoned packages and especially suspicious behavior. But Storemski suspects terrorists seeking global publicity are less likely to attack Houston's street festival, which attracts little nationwide attention, than a high-profile target like the Boston Marathon.

"We want the public to be vigilant," Storemski said. "We want the public to understand that the first responder community is doing what they can to prevent. But we don't want people to run scared. I think that's what terrorists are looking for us to do."

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