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Homeland Security blows $16m prepping for apocalypse

Duct tape and sheet plastic writ large

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is conducting drills in Connecticut and New Jersey to help first responders perfect their routines in anticipation of the next mass-casualty terror attack on US soil.

Dubbed TOPOFF (for 'Top Officials'), the week-long exercise will test the practical limits of "10,000 participants representing more than 200 federal, state, local, tribal, private, and international organizations" to ease suffering, protect lives, and allay fears, DHS boasts.

Canada and the UK will conduct similar exercises and help test international coordination in the event of an attack.

The exercise assumes that terrorists plan to attack New York City and Boston. When they suspect that their plans have been uncovered, they decide to discharge their weapons of mass destruction ahead of schedule: plague in Union, New Jersey, and mustard gas in New London, Connecticut.

For insight into how bad DHS expects such attacks to be, one can consult the formerly secret publication National Attack Scenarios, recently left available for public scrutiny by a careless admin working with the Hawaii state government. The document attempts to estimate the costs in lives and property damage from a number of horrors, including nuclear, chemical, and biological attacks, and natural disasters such as pandemics, earthquakes, and the like.

It's likely that this week's exercises are drawn in large part from the scenarios document, which gives rather optimistic casualty and cost estimates for its several doomsday plots. Even in the supposed detonation of a 10 kiloton nuclear bomb in Washington, DC, only half a million deaths and "hundreds of billions" in damages are imagined.

Yet 3,000 square miles of densely populated urban and suburban land is presumed contaminated by fallout, the cleanup costs of which alone would probably exceed the cost estimate, if not the nation's GDP. And then there's blast and fire damage, the general slowdown of economic activity and subsequent withdrawal of government support from numerous economic sectors, the costs of mass medical treatment, providing emergency shelter and food, insurance claims, infrastructure repair, service interruptions, stock and currency market devaluations, and a hundred other expensive little shockers.

A similar lack of imagination is evident throughout the document. Consider briefly the estimate of a deadly flu pandemic originating in China: "Over the next 2 months, outbreaks begin to appear in Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan," the authors predict, blithely overlooking the existence of North Korea, and with it, risk that the Kim regime might suddenly destabilize, and the possible consequences of such a development. The pandemic might actually be the least of the world's worries in that case.

Assuming that the scenarios document is a basic blueprint for scripting exercises such as those going on this week, we can expect very few unknown difficulties to reveal themselves. For example, the fact that a good number of first responders might decide to "self evacuate" in the face of thousands of people shedding deadly virus all around them is one such possible glitch.

The natural reluctance of rescuers to get close enough to ground zero after a nuclear detonation to be much use to survivors is another. People are always a good deal braver when they know there's no danger. Some will rush in to assist no matter the risk, but others will certainly balk in real-world conditions. It would be good to know in advance how many staff members can be expected to show up for work in a hospital overflowing with plague victims.

But the idea here is not to attempt a comprehensive simulation, but rather to look at known response systems under a bit of pressure, and watch for weak spots. It's assumed that everyone is going to report for duty, that hospitals will remain open, that traffic jams caused by evacuees won't really bring rescue efforts to a halt, that citizens who would do best to shelter in place will shelter in place and those who would do better to evacuate will evacuate, that no one is going to shoot the policemen who try to quarantine them, and that terrorists are not going to use the initial attack to distract police and rescuers while herding the public towards an even more deadly one a bit later.

Rather, this is more an examination of how things will go if everything goes as well as it possibly could. Which can be useful, certainly, because it is important to know whether different groups providing services will be able to communicate with each other, and whether there are enough ambulances and hospital beds - and also because the people who have to decontaminate you have got to rehearse doing it.

But another important question is, how much and what quality of service will actually be available in a real attack? Capacity is one thing; availability is quite another.

The next question is, will debugging the routines in Union and New London really help New York or Chicago or Los Angeles? Each place has its own unique challenges and peculiarities. If you can evacuate Union successfully, does this mean that you can evacuate Manhattan, with one and a half million residents and over two million daily commuters, whose exits consist of eleven bridges and tunnels?

This invites one to wonder if these drills, enacted at the expense of $16m, will amount to more than a confidence-building exercise designed to give everyone involved a sense of well-being and accomplishment, and to provide Washington TOPOFFs with plenty of fodder for cheery, can-do-spirited press conferences later this week. ®

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