-- Sooner or later, nearly everybody of civic importance in this quiet town of 200 people shows up on the front porch at the Farmers Service Center. Here, owner Bobby Tanner holds court in a comfortable chair and contemplates the possibility of terrorist mayhem in Washington, 90 miles away.
"This is kind of ugly, but if they drop the nerve gas, they say what you're supposed to do is put your head down between your legs and kiss your butt goodbye," Tanner, 67, said matter-of-factly about the prospect of a chemical attack in the nation's capital.
But leaders here in Madison County, population 12,500, are preparing for what could happen immediately after such an event: the possibility that droves of panicked Washingtonians would head for the hills. If they chose U.S. 29 south for their exodus, they could wind up in the vicinity of the town, about 30 miles northeast of Charlottesville, where the blue outline of the mountains forms a peaceful backdrop and large family farms dot the countryside.
For months, officials here have been preparing not only to ensure the safety of their own residents but also to take in as many as possible of those who might flee the Washington region. Even as the war with Iraq winds down and the terrorism threat level is lowered, Madison County officials see no reason to stash their plans.
"I think it's something we're going to have to keep thinking about," said Robert "Radar" Finks, 42, the county's 911 coordinator and assistant fire chief, who was working within earshot of Tanner's porch on a recent balmy afternoon. "It's more of a possibility now than it was before 9/11 -- that's the whole key right now. Since 9/11, it shows the United States is vulnerable to anything and, yes, if something is targeted towards Washington, yes, people are going to be headed this way."
There is only so much, however, that the well-meaning people of Madison County can do. Three shelters, including the county's only high school, have been readied to receive evacuees. Food has been stockpiled, communication systems updated. In case of a smallpox outbreak, trucks and freezers have been reserved for transporting and storing vaccine. But when the numbers are added up, the county can accommodate only a small portion of the city dwellers who might feel more comfortable away from home. At most, there are about 300 emergency beds.
"If everybody in Arlington decided they were going to move to Madison, it's not going to work," said David C. Jones, 52, a dairy farmer and chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, who had stopped by Tanner's business that afternoon. "The only thing I can say is that if all heck broke loose and people had to get out, we as the county would do whatever we could to help whoever we could help -- realizing there's going to be a limit."
In fact, it is just as likely that in a worst-case scenario Washington area residents would not be able to break away from the traffic jams and other chaos there. Many official plans nowadays do not call for long-distance evacuations. "If you had an incident in Washington, D.C., and it was airborne, for example, you're only going to have a pie-shaped section of Washington that's going to be downwind," said Steven S. Hoffman, 57, Madison County's emergency management coordinator, a volunteer position.
"You're going to evacuate to some degree, but it's not going to be a mass exodus," he said.
But Hoffman said he "absolutely" has received instructions from Washington, adding that he is "not at liberty to discuss what they are."
"We're all reading from the same page, and we're all taking pretty much the same training," he said. "Our city cousins just get a lot more practice at these things than we do."
If long-distance travel were possible in the event of an attack, there could be no more pleasant or reassuring destination than Madison, the county's only municipality and its seat of government. Older homes waving U.S. flags line the single main street, along with such businesses as the Madison Animal Clinic, the Eagle Bed & Breakfast and The Quilt Shop. Many of the residents here and in the surrounding county have spent their entire lives in the area, and the population is growing older.
"I'll bet there aren't 10 school-age kids in the whole town," Jones said. Countywide, the 1,800 students enrolled in the public schools are only half the number registered a century ago, he said.
Once a Democratic stronghold, the area became solidly Republican a couple of decades back, and support for President Bush and the war in Iraq runs high. A handful of war protesters has staked out the sidewalk in front of the county courthouse, but, said Jones, "They've been doing it since the '60s, the same bunch."
Local preparedness was already at a high level before the war. The jewel among new acquisitions, Hoffman said, is a portable communications system with a generator "the size of a sewing machine" that will enable Madisonians to reach "anybody in the world."
"The key to success in every operation is communications," he said. "If you can't talk to people, you wind up up to your armpits in alligators."
Nor is there any fear of immediately running out of food. Following rural tradition, nearly everyone in Madison County has a well-stocked pantry, war or no war. "It may not be exactly what we want, but I bet there's enough food in my house to last me and my wife for six months," Tanner said.
And for unexpected visitors from Washington -- up to a point.
"The first thing people want to do when something happens, they want to go back home and see what happened," Hoffman said. "They're not going to come down here and stay months and months and months. We just don't look forward to that."