terror exercise is all set to blast portland

from oregonian: The bomb’s in place. The terrorists are ready. The city waits.

As of 9 a.m. Tuesday, a lethal cloak of radiation will cover much of downtown Portland.

It’s all make-believe, of course. But this week the city will be ground zero for the largest counterterrorism exercise in U.S. history.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff will be in town to personally oversee the exercise, with the help of Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Mayor Tom Potter. In all, more than 15,000 people from 275 organizations will be involved. Every emergency agency in the Portland area, along with 14 hospitals and David Douglas High School, will play parts in an event dubbed “Topoff 4.”

Six years after 9/11, with the nation fighting wars on two foreign fronts, skeptics say such exercises only inflame the public. But federal, state and local officials say they need the complex drills to test their ability to work together during large-scale catastrophes. The history of Topoff shows those tests don’t usually go well.

“We know that the world will be watching,” said Chip Terhune, Kulongoski’s chief of staff…

Not everyone thinks it’s just a drill. Conspiracy theorists have for months filled Internet forums and the ears of officials with their belief that President Bush will use the exercise as a front to declare martial law, then declare an eventual attack on Iran. Police expect real protesters to target the week’s events.

Some, like 70-year-old Arlene Miller of Portland, worry the Bush administration has ordered the exercise to “go live,” detonating a real dirty bomb and blaming it on terrorists. “I’m scared to death,” said Miller, a retired Bonneville Power Administration employee.

When alarmists call the Oregon National Guard headquarters in Salem, officials are quick to tell them fewer than 40 soldiers will participate in the drill. In fact, the public won’t notice most elements of the exercise at all, planners say.

Portland officials say they have received about 20 calls in the past month. “We try to make it clear that it’s not a real radiological bomb,” Merlo said. From there, callers are sent to 2-1-1, the city’s Topoff information line.

When the “live action” portion concludes Wednesday night, the exercise will move to boardrooms and paper through Friday, concentrating on questions bound to emerge in the aftermath of a real dirty bomb.

How do you convince Portlanders it’s OK to go back outside? What if cargo ships refuse to dock in an irradiated city? Would tourists choose to go somewhere else? Would property values collapse, prompting an exodus?

“In reality,” Merlo said, “I think that’s the part that’s going to be the most interesting piece: How do we put the state back together?”

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