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Gary Younge
'It's a panic for sure. But it's a calm panic'

"One man just came in and bought up all my plastic sheeting - about 20 or 30 feet of it," said the owner of Sisters. "Now that never happens. It'll be worse tomorrow because it's pay day. But it's been pretty bad today. And you know it's the media because there's a whole lot more women coming in or sending their husbands who couldn't care less."

Since the government issued its guidelines for families to prepare a "disaster supply kit" in case of chemical, biological or nuclear attack, on Monday the nation's DIY shops have become the epicentre for a wave of subdued but nonetheless palpable panic.

The warning, which came just a few days after it raised the risk of terrorist attack to orange. It called for people to get a three-day supply of water, one gallon per person per day; food; a battery-powered radio; a change of clothes; an extra set of car keys; and cash. It also advised them to get a supply of duct tape and plastic sheeting in their homes to seal off windows in the event of a chemical or biological attack.

"We've had three times the amount of business we normally have in a day," said Bill Hart, at a hardware store in Bethesda, Maryland.

"They've been buying duct tape, plastic sheeting, flash lights, bottled water, can openers. I've been on the phone to suppliers all morning and we have trucks coming in from as far away as Atlanta tomorrow bringing duct tape and plastic sheeting. Everyone is a little nervous. It's panic for sure. But it's a calm panic. They're not taking stuff out of each other's baskets."

Quite how useful such precautions will be is the subject of considerable scepticism.

"If it lowers your blood pressure then go ahead and do it, but do everything else first," says Randall larsen, director of the Anser Institute for Homeland Security, a non-profit organisation based in Virginia who told his mother not to bother with the duct tape or sheeting. "I don't think there's enough information out there for people to be locking themselves in airtight rooms."

At Sisters, the response to the stampede is of weary familiarity and gentle mocking. "We had a run on carbon monoxide alarms last month after a TV programme," said the owner. "But that made more sense. If there is an attack it will be outside, not in the house. If al-Qaida are coming they ain't gonna be knocking on no one's door."

The rush does suggest both a jittery public mood that has been reflected elsewhere. New York hospitals are on a cyanide alert and have been urged to increase their levels of sodium thiosulfate, the antidote to cyanide. Meanwhile schools in the area have developed a plan to take students to evacuation sites.

At Brothers they are struggling with shoppers who look as though they have never been in a DIY store before.

"They said we gotta have duct tape and plastic sheeting for the windows," says the woman. "That's what they said on the television and in the newspaper. What do they mean by plastic sheeting?"

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