Tom Ridge wants you to know he sleeps well at night. “I’m not authorized to be stressed,” says the Secretary of the new Department of Homeland Security, part of whose job is to prepare America for a potential terrorist strike. “It’s not in the job description.”
It’s an example the former Pennsylvania governor hopes the public will follow. Starting this month, Ridge, 57, appears in public-service ads urging Americans to take precautions in case of an attack. He and wife Michele, 56, a former librarian, have already packed away three days’ worth of supplies to protect themselves, their children Lesley, 16, and Tommy, 15, and their three Labrador retrievers should the worst happen. The Ridges let PEOPLE’s Macon Morehouse poke around their safe room and Rubbermaid containers full of tuna, dog chow and water.
When did you put together your family’s emergency kit?
MICHELE: I started last September, when the country went on Orange Alert. The children and I had just moved to the Washington, D.C., area from Pennsylvania. We were in unfamiliar territory, and I felt I wouldn’t be able to find things quickly in an emergency. I already had duct tape around for things like getting dog hair off. I stockpiled foods that you can eat without heating them. And I made sure I had granola bars. My kids love them.
Do your kids tease you about stockpiling supplies?
RIDGE: They’re pretty cool about it. They were the first ones to remind us to set aside stuff for our pets.
Are there any luxury items that you have to have in your kit?
MICHELE: Dental floss!
RIDGE: We’ll be in our basement rec room, and the kids have their keyboard and guitar down there. The standard luxuries would be cards and some games. Unfortunately, I’ll probably be somewhere else if something happens.
Do you also travel with a kit?
RIDGE: On official trips the Secret Service takes care of my safety. For the family, we have a gym bag for emergencies with first-aid supplies, crackers, tuna, peanut butter and water.
What about your kids?
RIDGE: Lesley has a cell phone—she’s 16 and thinks it’s an entitlement—but Tom doesn’t. If our kids are away from home, we have given them the names of people we want them to call and a place to meet. Not knowing where they are is the greatest fear.
Does all this scare them?
RIDGE: They haven’t expressed that to me. They know what Dad is doing is important, because the President asked him to do it. They get it.
Do you think moving your family to Washington puts them at special risk?
RIDGE: There’s nothing in our intelligence that suggests terrorism is just a problem for New York City and Washington, D.C. I was talking to a journalist a couple of months ago who asked if I’d left my family in Pennsylvania. When she found out I hadn’t, she said, ‘Really, I’m comforted by that.’ I said, ‘I hoped you would be.’ ”
What are the chances that there will be another terrorist attack?
RIDGE: Do I think it will happen? Yes, I think there will be another incident. When? Can’t tell you. What form? Don’t know.
What has happened if we go to Code Red? Has a bomb been dropped?
RIDGE: We would likely go Code Red before an imminent attack. You really button up the entire country if you go Code Red. I know Americans are frustrated with the vagueness of these warnings, but it’s hard to be specific about terrorist threats.
How involved is the President?
RIDGE: We meet every morning, early—the President, the Vice President, Dr. Rice, the Chief of Staff, the FBI director, CIA director, myself and a few others—and we review the intelligence received in the previous 24 hours. The President knows the terrorists’ names, places and connections.
What did you think when, thanks to the latest Orange Alert, store shelves were cleared of duct tape?
RIDGE: For the longest time I wondered if people were paying attention. Now I think they are.