Disaster Drill Consumes Houston

Part Two of This Report

Steve Inskeep reports on a disaster-response drill in Houston. In an exercise, a fire shuts down one of the country's most important energy supply lines. More than twenty agencies descend on the crisis to save lives, and determine whether terrorists were involved.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going to finish this hour by listening to some sounds from Houston, Texas. An NPR producer was there hearing the sounds of heavy traffic.

(Soundbite of traffic)

(Soundbite of horns)

INSKEEP: A fire was reported yesterday on the Houston shipping channel. That waterway stretches for more than 50 miles, and it's lined by oil refineries and chemical plants. Last year, the channel briefly seemed to be in the path of a hurricane. Hurricane Rita landed elsewhere, but a major disaster or a terrorist attack in that shipping channel could be a nightmare for a nation that depends on Houston's energy industry. It could also be a more immediate crisis for Houston. Pier 41, where these fire trucks have come, is just five miles from the center of one of the nation's largest cities.

(Soundbite of voice over PA)

INSKEEP: Fortunately, this is a practice drill. It is an effort to test emergency response efforts.

(Soundbite of escaping air)

Unidentified Man: All right, chief.

INSKEEP: In this full-scale exercise, responders touch and feel the disaster.

(Soundbite of banging)

INSKEEP: Six firefighters descend through the Cape Trinity. That ship is a floating warehouse, as long as two football fields. It just returned from taking vehicles to U.S. troops overseas.

(Soundbite of banging)

INSKEEP: The firefighters have been told the trouble is three decks down in the engine room. They labor behind oxygen masks in hot and heavy gear.

Unidentified Man: We haven't--we don't have confirmation there's a fire, no.

INSKEEP: These men are the vanguard of more than 20 agencies to come, and they face a situation that's rapidly changing.

(Soundbite of beeping)

Unidentified Man: Control division, calling command. I've got a report from the engineer that they have one lost firefighter from his crew, and he...

INSKEEP: A firefighter is down, and that is just one complication emergency workers face in this exercise. There is an oil spill reported as the fire burns out of control. Firefighters across town gauge the imitation toxic fume. Coast Guard teams, with assault rifles and bomb-sniffing dogs, secure the pier.

Unidentified Man #1: Chief Hamm(ph), we have all inoperabilities set up between Fort P.D. and Houston P.D. Now, if we need to get some of your guys together, let us know.

Unidentified Man #2: (On radio) Company, call in command...

INSKEEP: The FBI considers whether terrorists were involved, and the shipping channel is shut down entirely. All that oil business waits for an end to the crisis.

Unidentified Man: What's going to eat our lunch, I guess. You know, what's going to kill us in the end? And, well, if we don't get things opened in time, that'll start being our pressure points.

INSKEEP: As this mock emergency goes on, key officials gather across town in Houston's command center. They want to know what's happening, and they're expecting even more complications as the hours go on.

Unidentified Woman: At 0600 tomorrow, the majority of oil is going to have to move back up in here.

Unidentified Man: Okay.

Unidentified Woman: So, the tides are coming in-bound tonight.

INSKEEP: This readiness exercise in Houston, Texas went on all night and into this day, and we will be listening to more sounds from Houston tomorrow. We'll learn whether terrorists were involved, how much oil money was lost, and how these teams reacted to a disaster, almost one month before a new hurricane season begins.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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