WASHINGTON, DC—Assuring the nation that "there is no need for alarm," the Office of Homeland Security issued all U.S. citizens life jackets for some unexplained reason Monday.
"Everything is fine. You have nothing to worry about," said Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge during a televised press conference. "Still, just to be 100 percent on the safe side, I would urge all Americans to keep these life vests on at all times."
Ridge said he was not at liberty to divulge the specific reason for the unprecedented national life-jacket distribution, but he insisted that the move is "merely a minor precautionary measure."
"To say exactly what these life vests are for would not be in the best interests of national security, but I promise that this is not indicative of any serious threat," Ridge said. "The best thing for everyone to do is simply go about their normal lives. With their life vests on, of course."
Ridge went on to say that, in addition to the life jackets, citizens should keep the accompanying kits—containing a packet of fluorescent-orange marker dye, shark-repellent pellets, and three magnesium flares—on their person at all times.
Citizens have reacted to the federal mandate with equal parts curiosity and consternation.
"I'm not sure I like this," said Dan Speigel, a Seattle advertising executive. "Why do I have to wear this thing on the bus when I go to work—a bus, I might add, which is now equipped with side pontoons and driven by a uniformed Coast Guard officer?"
"On the subway today, the announcer guy said that our seat cushions can be used as flotation devices," said Danielle Uris of New York City. "When did they start saying that?"
During a Tuesday appearance on Larry King Live, Vice-President Dick Cheney stressed that the life-vest distribution has nothing to do with the current state of world affairs.
"This move was not done in anticipation of any sort of terrorist attack," Cheney said. "That's ridiculous. If only you were privy to the specifics of the closed-door meeting I had this morning with President Bush, Tom Ridge, Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Powell, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, CIA director George Tenet, and several leading State Department meteorologists, you would know just how silly and unfounded those fears are."
Added Cheney: "The U.S. has received no threats at any time in the past 22 hours, so you can all just relax."
Despite such assurances, many Americans remain concerned.
"I don't like having to keep the kids in their little water wings," said Michelle Barerras, a Grand Junction, CO, third-grade teacher. "They look really cute in them, but it's unnerving. And this morning, all the teachers have received a Department of Education memo informing us that geography units would soon be obsolete. It's being replaced with a special 'Swimming Is Fun-damental!' unit with an emphasis on surviving high waves and avoiding waterborne automobiles. Why?"
"On CNN today, they said the current nationwide threat level on the Homeland Security Advisory System was just raised from 'Elevated' to 'Extreme,'" said Eileen Buchsbaum of St. Louis. "Cheney told reporters it was just 'routine procedure,' and that it had nothing to do with any false rumors of thermal bombs planted beneath the ice caps."
While most citizens are unhappy about the vague warnings, the sudden emphasis on water safety has proven a boon to some traditionally stagnant industries. SeaTech, a San Diego-based harpoon manufacturer, was recently awarded a $2.2 billion government subsidy to develop a lightweight, handheld harpoon that can withstand water temperatures above 200 degrees. And the Department of the Navy expects the construction of its newly announced Idaho, Missouri, and Ohio shipyards to create more than 50,000 new jobs.
President Bush, attempting to further allay fears, addressed the nation Tuesday.
"My fellow Americans, you may have noticed some small changes in the way we're asking you to go about your daily business," said Bush, his words muffled by a brass diving helmet. "The government is not trying to scare you. We just want you to be prepared for the very remote possibility that your lives will never be the same."
"Again, I cannot stress enough what a longshot that particular unspecified scenario is," Bush continued. "We are not facing what I would call a 'credible threat,' so don't even bother worrying about it."
Bush went on to say that, in the coming weeks, those living in the Midwest and parts of the Sun Belt may notice a sudden increase in the number of submersibles in the streets. He also asked residents of Miami, New York, and San Francisco to be tolerant of any inconvenience caused by the construction of large trimaran-hull ships there, urging them to be considerate of the workers racing to finish them by next week.
"I expect every citizen to do his duty and be brave," Bush said. "Good night, and God bless the United Aquatic States of Hydro-America."