Many Lessons in Disaster Drill

National Guard rescue workers test their skills during a training exercise in Indiana that simulates a nuclear attack. Thousands of emergency responders are taking part in the drill, which includes terrorist attacks and a hurricane.
National Guard rescue workers test their skills during a training exercise in Indiana that simulates a nuclear attack. Thousands of emergency responders are taking part in the drill, which includes terrorist attacks and a hurricane. (By Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)

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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 14, 2007

BUTLERVILLE, Ind. -- "Okay, roll him over," a National Guard rescue worker tells his team, treating a bloodied, unconscious role-player pulled from the dust and rubble of a collapsed building in southern Indiana.

"One, two, three -- lift!" the guardsman says as the team carries the mock victim to a decontamination tent -- a little like a human carwash -- where the injured are rolled on stretchers through sprinklers that remove radioactive residue.

A 10-kiloton nuclear bomb has just detonated in greater Indianapolis, killing 14,000 people, injuring 21,000 and overwhelming local responders as part of the largest and most complex military and civilian training exercise of its kind. And so, thousands of local, state and national forces -- including more than 2,000 National Guard members and 1,200 active-duty troops from U.S. Northern Command -- are taking part in the 11-day exercise this week.

Other parts of the exercise include a simulated major hurricane in the Northeast and multiple terrorist attacks on military installations and infrastructure in Alaska.

"This may well be the most demanding scenario our nation faces," said Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., head of Northern Command, after surveying the emergency work on Saturday at a 1,000-acre training facility south of Indianapolis. "An event of this size would overwhelm any state."

Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina exposed gaps in the country's ability to respond to a large-scale domestic crisis, the exercise is showing important advances in the ability of responders to coordinate their efforts and put specialized lifesaving skills to work.

Yet the preplanned scenario, designed to push the U.S. response system to the breaking point, has also highlighted ongoing shortcomings in the government's ability to handle the aftermath of such a crisis.

Nationwide, for example, the Army National Guard has only half the equipment it needs to respond to crises at home -- from terrorist attacks to natural disasters. That includes 38 percent of trucks, 27 percent of helicopters and other aircraft, and 46 percent of communications gear, according to Guard data. Such gaps can delay critical help by days, leading to higher death tolls, said Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, head of the National Guard Bureau.

"This is something that we've never seen -- a horrific attack," said Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger, adjutant general of the Indiana National Guard, which in the scenario mobilized its 13,500 available members. "We are all realizing that what we just went through is very probable for the nation."

At the sprawling Muscatatuck Urban Training Center outside Butlerville, some emergency responders ran mobile command centers and communications networks in trucks and tents. Others rescued victims from buildings.

In one tent, Capt. Kevin Jones of the Kentucky Guard manned a satellite communications network able to patch together radio systems used by local police, firefighters and the military -- a critical function absent during Katrina. Twenty-five such teams exist nationwide, with one planned for each of the states. "We can allow anyone to communicate with anyone," said Jones, whose team has had its equipment less than a year.

Nearby, other specialized Guard response teams performed difficult rescues, including rappelling off a building with a patient in a stretcher and removing the injured from a collapsed building. Since 2004, the Guard has established 17 response forces, with about 180 members each, to react within hours to chemical, biological or nuclear incidents.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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