Downtown white powder scare a false alarm

By Chuck Weber email

WEST PALM BEACH, FL (WFLX)-Hazmat crews suited up in downtown West Palm Beach on Wednesday, after a call about a suspicious powder.

A city hall worker first noticed the powder in the plaza of the City Center complex. Strangely enough some of the white powder was arranged in a circle in the plaza's pavers. There were other small piles nearby, including on city hall window sills.

Police closed the 400 block of Clematis Street and no one was allowed to leave or enter city hall or the library next door.

To everyone's relief, tests showed the powder was only wheat flour. Normal activity resumed.

But as rescue were packing up at city hall, they got a call about more powder a block away at the intersection of Clematis and Rosemary. There on one corner, the powder was in the shape of a cross. Again it was only flour.

Still powder was turning up on other streets, even in CityPlace. On a Banyan Boulevard sidewalk, powder was laid out in the shape of an arrow.

Police finally figured out a running group had used to flour symbols to mark a course through the downtown. The group failed to inform the city it was having a race Wednesday night. Police say members of the group had notified them in previous years.

A West Palm Beach spokesman said the city had not calculated the cost of its response.

"It is a lot of expense," affirmed the city's emergency management coordinator, Allan Ortman. He said, "It was great training. I feel sorry for the guys who have to put those hazmat suits on, in 85 or 90 degree weather."

False alarms over white powder have become a regular occurrence since the deadly anthrax attacks of 2001. In our area, Robert Stevens of Lantana died after being exposed at his workplace, American Media in Boca Raton.

West Palm Beach detective Ed Thomas said if you're holding an event where powder is involved, "Just give us a heads up. Let us know what's going on. That way we don't assume something bad is happening."