An unreal catastrophe

A mock disaster sternly tests the government's ability to respond.

Published May 15, 2007

BUTLERVILLE, Ind. - "Okay, roll him over, " a National Guard rescue worker tells his team, treating a bloodied, unconscious role-player pulled from the dust and rubble of a collapsed building in southern Indiana.

The scenario - a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb has just detonated in greater Indianapolis, killing 14, 000, injuring 21, 000 and overwhelming local responders - is part of the largest and most complex military and civilian training exercise of its kind. And so, thousands of local, state and national forces, including more than 2, 000 National Guard members and 1, 200 active-duty troops from U.S. Northern Command, are taking part in the 11-day exercise this week.

Other parts of the exercise include a simulated major hurricane in the Northeast and multiple terrorist attacks on military installations and infrastructure in Alaska.

"This may well be the most demanding scenario our nation faces, " said Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., head of Northern Command, after surveying the emergency work Saturday at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center outside Butlerville, south of Indianapolis.

Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina exposed gaps in the country's ability to respond to a large-scale domestic crisis, the exercise is showing important advances in the ability of responders to coordinate their efforts and put specialized lifesaving skills to work.

Yet the preplanned scenario, designed to push the U.S. response system to the breaking point, has highlighted ongoing shortcomings in the government's ability to handle the aftermath of such a crisis.

Nationwide, for example, the Army National Guard has only half the equipment it needs to respond to crises at home, from terrorist attacks to natural disasters.

"We want to see where this is going to break, " said Air National Guard Lt. Col. Kim Sencindiver, who trains the medical teams that are part of each response force.