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October 24th, 2007 Jonah Sandford | News Stories
 

Dear Diary

Today I went to a simulated terrorist attack.

     
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TOPOFF PREQUEL: The explosion of a TriMet bus for TOPOFF 4 took place the previous week in Yakima, Wash.

Whew! Portland remains standing after TOPOFF 4.

What was billed as the nation’s largest counterterrorism drill occupied about 5,000 federal, state and local officials at a cost of $25 million in federal dollars over four days to simulate terrorist attacks here as well as in Phoenix and Guam.

The Department of Homeland Security says on its website that TOPOFF (a mashup of “Top Officials”) “offers agencies and jurisdictions a way to test their plans and skills in a real-time, realistic environment and to gain the in-depth knowledge that only experience can provide.”

While TOPOFF officials say it will be months before the exercise’s lessons can be sorted out, we feel qualified, after visiting each day, to gauge the exercise now on how believable it seemed on a scale of 1 to 5. A 1 felt like an elementary school fire drill; we reserved a 5 for that special run-for-the-bomb-shelter tingling.

Tuesday, Oct. 16. 10:50 AM I start at Portland International Raceway, where TOPOFF kicks off with an exploding bus. Embarrassing disclosure: I got there late so I have to watch a video of the explosion. I learn that the blast is meant to simulate a terrorist’s “dirty bomb” going off on a MAX train on the Steel Bridge. But a TriMet bus is standing in for the train in the middle of a giant field, which is standing in for the Steel Bridge and downtown Portland. Meanwhile, I do witness emergency responders working oh-so-slowly to identify blast “victims” and move them to decontamination tents and hospitals. The explosion—and the responders’ reaction to it—feels underwhelming.

Believability: 1

Wednesday, Oct. 17. 3:05 PM We’re in a small trailer, learning about plans to deal with victims—and their pets—left homeless by the “attack.” Larry Crabb of Multnomah County Animal Control says the exercise provides the chance to demonstrate how mistakes made during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans—such as animals being stranded and removed from their owners—won’t happen here. Behind Crabb is a wall of small cages, several of which have stuffed animals as stand-ins for actual animals. But there are a few actual dogs involved.

Believability: 3

Thursday, Oct. 18. 2:02 PM I arrive at the DoubleTree Hotel at the Lloyd Center for today’s media briefing. All hell has broken loose—for real this time. Directly in front of the hotel are a dozen police vehicles. Streets are blocked off. And a helicopter buzzes ominously overhead. TOPOFF types are milling around across the street, What’s going on? Were the conspiracy theorists right? Has PDX become the next battleground in the War on Terror? No. It turns out the hotel was evacuated because three bomb-sniffing dogs, while sweeping the area before a visit by Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff, freaked out in the parking lot. No bomb is found. But the exercise is shut down for hours.

Believability: 5

Friday, Oct. 19. 10:05 AM FEMA’s Darryl Madden, who has guided reporters this week, wraps up the final media briefing. I feel no safer than I did on Tuesday. Results from the last TOPOFF exercise, in 2005, still haven’t been released. And the few glimpses the media have gotten this time provide very little reason to believe TOPOFF 4 was anything more than an opportunity for the agencies involved to pat themselves on the back.

Sadly, the believability on that score is 5.


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FACT: The first three TOPOFFS took place in 2000, 2003 (partly in Seattle), and 2005.
 
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