Prepare for the worst; hope for the best

Saturday, September 13, 2003

For most of us, an attack by Osama bin Laden's followers or any other terrorists in Southeast Missouri isn't something we expect or spend a whole lot of time worrying about.

Admittedly, it's unlikely that bin Laden, if he's still alive, would somehow locate Southeast Missouri on a giant map of the United States and then launch a major attack against a sparsely populated part of the nation.

But what about the kind of terrorist Americans find most disconcerting and hard to understand: Those who live and work among us, blending into the rural scenery until they strike?

Or the ones who terrorize their coworkers with guns or blow up government buildings to publicize their agenda and lash out at an America they hate?

That's why agencies gathered in Cape Girardeau a week ago to rehearse how they would face such an enemy. They included Cape Girardeau's police and fire departments, Sikeston Department of Public Safety -- including its special operations team that is akin to a SWAT team -- Cape Girardeau County Private Ambulance Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Missouri Department of Public Safety, the state Department of Natural Resources and the FBI.

The mock terrorist strike was a fascinating exercise. In it, a terrorist bombed the Exxon pipeline across the Mississippi River at Chester, Ill., sending gallon after gallon of oil into the river. He later detonated a so-called dirty bomb on a docked barge in Cape Girardeau, exposing three workers to dangerous radiation.

In the simulation, a sniper trained his weapon on the terrorist, who was arrested easily after he committed his horrible crimes.

During the exercise, a water vacuum sucked the oil -- which actually was rice hulls -- off the surface of the fast-flowing river, teaching workers how to handle such machinery.

Hazardous materials handlers got to practice their specialty dealing with the dirty bomb, which actually was two barrels of honey that didn't actually explode.

And special operations personnel rehearsed closing in on an enemy in perfect unison and total silence.

Some of the exercise was realistic. Some of it wasn't -- especially the part where everyone lived and the terrorist was captured within just a few hours.

But at the end of it all, everyone learned that the area's emergency responders are preparing for the worst, even as we all hope for the best in Southeast Missouri.

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