Task force braces for terrorism at Fort Monroe

General prepares for horrors, chaos he's sure will come

March 13, 2003|By R. W. Rogers | R. W. Rogers,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FORT MONROE, Va. - Maj. Gen. Jerry Grizzle knows destruction.

His troops guarded the shattered Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City after domestic terrorists bombed it in 1995, killing 168 men, women and children.

He ran recovery operations in 1999 after the worst tornadoes in decades whipsawed through Oklahoma, killing 44 and destroying thousands of homes.

Grizzle knows destruction's look, taste and smell.

But neither his military training nor his personal experiences, he admits, can quite prepare him to handle the chaos and carnage that would result if terrorists detonate a nuclear weapon in Los Angeles, spray nerve agent over Atlanta or spread smallpox throughout the Midwest.

Yet that's precisely his job.

"You think about those things a lot," said Grizzle, who as commander of Fort Monroe's Joint Task Force Civil Support is saddled with "dreaming up these truly horrific scenarios so that we can properly train and be prepared."

Falling under the office of Homeland Security and the Defense Department's Northern Command, Grizzle's outfit was created in 1999 to coordinate military aid to cities and states - everything from mobile hospitals to decontamination units to bulldozers to mortuary services in the event of an attack by a weapon of mass destruction.

The role of Joint Task Force Civil Support moved center stage after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. More attacks have been all but predicted by government officials.

From his operations center in a small room lined with television and video monitors overlooking a larger room reminiscent of a NASA control room, Grizzle explained the way his command would respond if called upon.

As soon as possible after the event, Grizzle and a small staff would leave immediately for the incident site to confer with civilian authorities and to survey the situation. Meanwhile, his staff back at Monroe would gather and analyze information from media and government sources and notify specialty units to get ready.

If ordered, Grizzle said, he could have the right troops with the right skills on the ground in as little as four hours.

"When we come in with that response force," said Grizzle, "it's big, it's immediate, it's focused. It stabilizes the situation so the local authorities can gain control."

That force numbers about 3,800 highly trained troops and civilians from all services and located across the country. Their job would be to save lives, prevent injury and provide temporary life support.

Medical personnel able to work in a contaminated environment "would make up a large portion of what we would do," Grizzle said. So would decontamination and monitoring teams.

"I would say their role is pretty significant," said Philip Anderson, senior fellow and expert in homeland security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "They would provide the radiological, surveillance and quarantine capabilities."

Short of an event where most of the victims are killed outright, such as what happened in New York City and at the Pentagon, the military, and by extension Grizzle, would almost certainly play a central role.

"If you have a nuke exploded on U.S. soil, all bets would be off. The military would be expected to quarantine an area," said Anderson. "And Joint Task Force Civil Support would play a significant role in coordinating this."

Grizzle's full-time command is tiny - just 160 people - and is located in a former school across from the post bowling alley on the outskirts of Fort Monroe. "Boys" and "Girls" brass plates still mark the bathrooms.

But there's nothing elementary about the scenarios played out here.

A true nuclear attack would be the worst, as opposed to a "dirty bomb," which Grizzle and Anderson say would be more psychologically damaging than mortally wounding.

A nuclear attack is also the least likely to happen.

A biological attack using smallpox or the plague in several parts of the country is the second most dangerous threat and far more likely to happen.

Just such an event was simulated last August in Virginia Beach, though the scenario dealt with terrorists driving a van spewing plague from Mexico to El Paso, Texas.

By the time the biohazard was detected, as the scenario played out, 50,000 people were sick or dead, 250,000 had been forced from their homes, and the west Texas town of El Paso was burning.

At the time, Grizzle called the exercise "very realistic."

"The thing about a biohazard is you have no warning," said Grizzle. "You wouldn't know it until seven or 10 days. We live in a very transient society. So it would spread."

For months, Grizzle's command has worked with city, state and federal officials to find the best ways to combat such attacks. What's emerged, Grizzle said, is a comprehensive plan for managing the next terrorist attack, an attack that the career infantry officer fully expects.

A database containing the emergency management plans of four U.S. territories, 50 states and 80 cities plays a key role.

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