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New Mexico town welcomes terror

Simulated terror attacks in a government-contracted New Mexico town have become a little to real for some residents.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

With its pristine Spanish-style houses and flowering gardens, this remote town seems an unlikely place to be the most dangerous spot in the United States. But for the past six months it has been under siege by terrorists.

First, a man took some hostages and holed up inside No. 1 Mesquite St., threatening to blow up the place. A SWAT team had to shoot its way inside and take him out. Then came the discovery of a pipe-bomb factory in a neighbor's kitchen, and an explosion on a bus in which eight were killed or wounded.

‘It feels like I'm in war’
The attacks are simulations, part of a national training program for emergency personnel such as police, paramedics and border patrol officers. For the roughly 20 families who live in this government-contracted town and the several dozen others who live on the outskirts, however, the events are sometimes almost too real.

"It feels like I'm in war," said Trent Johnson, 17, who was born and raised here. Helicopters fly overhead in the middle of the night. Sometimes while he is going to school or running errands he and his parents must make their way past a maze of ambulances, fire engines and Humvees. "It's kind of freaky to see people in uniform walking down your street with M-4s."

Mercifully, evidence of the attacks does not last long. After each crisis, a cleanup crew arrives, quietly sweeping up shattered glass, replacing smashed doors, patching cracked walls. Their job is to rewind the clock, returning the town to the way it was before the attack, as if nothing had happened.

Next come a few quiet days, sometimes a few quiet weeks. Then the attacks begin all over again.

Preparing for another homeland attack
Life has been this way since December, when the first trainees began arriving from across the country. Nicknamed "terror town" by locals, Playas is part of a multibillion-dollar initiative by the federal government to prepare for what some think is inevitable: another attack on U.S. soil.

While the government's efforts to prevent terrorism — extra security at airports and at the borders, the roundup of suspect combatants — have been the most visible, it also has dedicated significant resources to trying to predict and respond to worst-case scenarios. The cornerstone of that effort involves simulations.

"You'll never fight the scenario you train against but the fact that you've been exposed to similar conditions in a synthetic environment — one where there's no penalty or harm for making a mistake — is the best opportunity you're going to have to learn," said Corey Gruber, director of policy for the Office for Domestic Preparedness in the Homeland Security Department.

Exercises cover many scenarios
The challenge for those who design the simulations is to create something that is more than a flashy Hollywood act. Some critics have questioned the cost and usefulness of simulations, saying that trying to get a handle on the infinite number of variables involved in any possible attack is pointless and the government might be better off putting its resources into other projects. Another worry is the danger that enemies of the United States may be able to use data from the exercises as a playbook for targets.

Some simulations, like the ones in Playas, are narrowly focused on one problem and involve only several dozen participants. Others are elaborate multi-state, multi-agency efforts with professional actors, fake blood and props. Last month, for example, hospital emergency rooms in New Jersey were flooded with "patients" who were infected with pneumonic plague while a car bomb filled with toxic chemicals detonated at a waterfront festival in Connecticut. More than 23,000 trainees participated.

The most complex, involving thousands or even millions of virtual deaths, can only be conducted inside the brain of a computer. In secured rooms at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Naval Postgraduate School, Virginia Tech and other research institutions, the machines are modeling disasters such as the contamination of the water supply, a smallpox release, and a hacker attack on our Internet infrastructure.

Shedding light on dangers, decisions
Gruber said each simulation is followed by detailed assessments of what went right or wrong. The results, he said, have been helpful in pinpointing weaknesses in our response system. Gruber said, for instance, that after an exercise that involved a dirty bomb the government discovered that there were multiple agencies trying to predict the spread of radiation, yet no formal way for them to communicate. They have since fixed that.

Daniel Hamilton, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, cautioned that the results of simulations should be seen as a tool to help in decision-making, not as a solution. Johns Hopkins recently co-hosted an exercise involving a biological attack that began in Europe and that featured Madeleine Albright playing the president.

Simulations "simply draw out a range of choices and provide some perspective," Hamilton said.

Built by the Phelps Dodge Corp. in the 1970s to house workers at its copper smelter plant nearby, Playas was once an idyllic piece of rural America. Nestled at the base of a small mountain range in the deserts of southwestern New Mexico, it housed more than 1,000 people in a complex that included about 260 pastel-painted houses, a bank, medical clinic, bowling alley, and diner. People who lived in Playas in its heyday remember how no one's door was ever locked and newcomers would be welcomed with fresh-baked pies. But when the factory closed in 1999, all but a handful of Playas's inhabitants left.

Terror Town is born
It was not until last fall that Playas was reborn. The New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (better known as New Mexico Tech) used a $5 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security to purchase the 640-acre township. It is now part of a network of academic institutions that specialize in training emergency workers to respond to various threats. In Alabama, the scenarios revolve mostly around chemical incidents. In Louisiana, biological threats. In Texas, a broad range incidents involving weapons of mass destruction, including derailed trains and people trapped in tunnels. In Nevada, radiological attacks.

New Mexico specializes in explosives.

Letter bombs, pipe bombs, car bombs and the improvised explosive devices placed on roadways are among the easiest of weapons for terrorist to create. That is why many believe they have been so difficult to control in Iraq and are the most likely to make their way to the United States first.

"This is something that terrorists have been using for a long time and we believe they'll use here in the future," said Van Romero, vice president for research and economic development at New Mexico Tech.

Pride, wariness among residents
Playas resident Benjamin Davis recalled what it was like to play a bus passenger seated next to a bomber in one scenario.

"It makes you realize how awful the world can be . . . It makes you think," said Davis, 23, a furniture store worker and volunteer firefighter who was paid $10 an hour for his role-playing.

When New Mexico Tech moved in, it closed the town to newcomers. Existing families were relocated to three streets on the eastern side of town. They pay about $375 a month in rent, depending on their home's size, condition and location.

Bill Cavaliere, 47, is one of those who decided to stay. He is the former sheriff of Hidalgo County which includes Playas and extends south to the Mexican border. He said is proud of his town's role in helping stop terrorism. When soldiers came to train recently, he said, "we said 'God bless you' and waved American flags."

David and Kathy Johnson, Trent's parents, have mixed feelings about their decision to remain in Playas. They did it mostly because they did not want to uproot their son during his senior year of high school. They say that their new landlords have tried hard to minimize disruptions to their lives — for instance, building a special half-mile road for David, 50, so his commute to his job at the cattle ranch on the other side of town would not take him through training exercises in the center of town. And, as landlord, New Mexico Tech continues to make available a bank window, convenience store and diner. It also threw the residents a Christmas dinner and gave each family a bottle of champagne for New Year's.

Living under siege
But despite the university's best efforts, Kathy, 47, a bookkeeper for a nearby school district who has lived in Playas for 17 years, said that lately she has been feeling as if she is living in an occupied town.

One afternoon on her way back from work, she was stopped by a soldier standing next to a tank who asked to see her driver's license. Then New Mexico Tech barricaded half of the town, declaring it a restricted area and making her family sign forms saying they will not enter without an escort. Last month, the town's operators instituted a new visitor's policy, requiring outsiders to check in at the police station before entering town.

John Jones, a New Mexico Tech official in charge of running the town, said that on days when homeland security exercises are taking place the residents cannot admit visitors — even family members or friends.

"I don't know how long we will keep living here because of this," Kathy said. When residents first heard New Mexico Tech was buying the town, she said, "people assumed it would be like the old days. But that's not the way it is."