Guy Raz, NPR
Members of a Marine decontamination unit prepare to sanitize the area during a simulated terrorist attack, near Fort Lewis, Wash.
Members of a Marine decontamination unit prepare to sanitize the area during a simulated terrorist attack, near Fort Lewis, Wash. Guy Raz, NPR
Guy Raz, NPR
A Marine battalion simulates decontamination of bodies exposed to a deadly chemical weapon, near Fort Lewis, Wash.
A Marine battalion simulates decontamination of bodies exposed to a deadly chemical weapon, near Fort Lewis, Wash. Guy Raz, NPR
Imagine this scenario: multiple terrorist bomb and nerve-gas attacks in the Pacific Northwest, several hijacked planes flying over the United States, and a major hurricane approaching the East Coast.
The U.S. military and dozens of other federal and state agencies spent the week dealing with these simulated emergencies. It's an annual training exercise to see how the U.S. Northern Command would deal with a major terrorist attack on American soil.
It may seem an unlikely perfect storm of events, but Gen. Victor "Gene" Renuart says the country must be prepared. "I think prudence tells you that you have to expect it could occur," says Renuart, who as commander of the U.S. Northern Command Headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., is the person ultimately responsible for the security of the United States. "Can I put a timeline on it? I know that terrorist organizations are trying increasingly to find a way in."
Renuart's reputation is on the line with this series of elaborate simulations — and with how well the dozens of federal and state agencies handle them. In the event of a catastrophic attack on the United States, Renuart will be in charge of mustering all the military resources available.
Take, for instance, a Marine chemical and biological unit from Maryland, which traveled to Washington state to work on decontaminating those "exposed" to VX nerve gas.
In the exercise, a plume of chemical-laden smoke floats over Seattle. A thousand people are already dead, about 10,000 wounded.
Lt. Col. Mike Rofsig, the battalion commander, says his unit can be on a plane en route to the site of a chemical attack within two hours.
During the course of the exercise, Renuart had to make some tough calls, including the decision to shoot down two "hijacked" airplanes.
A recent government report criticized the Northern Command, which Renuart has been running for 15 months. According to the Government Accountability Office, the military has not done a good job of coordinating its resources with the states.
Renuart says Northcom is improving its coordination abilities and studying the mistakes it made during Hurricane Katrina. "You know no real-world crisis will always be as smooth as you hope. But we've come so far down the road since Katrina in building planning capability that we'll be very effective," he says.
Next week, the command starts gearing up for its two biggest upcoming security challenges: the political conventions.