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Ref: Florida stages refugee response operations

Palm Beach Post

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Mass migration drill to prepare for possible crisis

By John Lantigua

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Monday, March 05, 2007

On Thursday, Lisa Cayne will "land" on a beach in Boca Raton, a seaborne refugee from somewhere in Latin America.

She already knows she will look haggard and will cough because of a nagging respiratory ailment.

"Squeezed into a small boat with all those people for days, you're bound to pick up something," Cayne said. She also will exhibit signs of anxiety, which she will express in anguished Spanish.

"You get separated from your loved ones at sea, you're going to be really stressed," she said.

Given all that, why on earth would she take to the water in the first place?

Because on Wednesday and Thursday, Cayne, a nurse by profession, will become an actress. She and several hundred other emergency responders from about 50 government agencies in South Florida will stage the region's largest-ever "mass migration exercise."

The idea is to simulate - at least in the imaginations of the participants - an event resembling the Mariel boatlift of 1980 or the Haitian exodus and Cuban rafter crisis, both in 1994.

First responders employed by county and local governments from Key West to Jupiter, along with state and federal employees, are expected to swing into action as they receive word that the latest tide of sea-swept Caribbean refugees is reaching our shores.

Bystanders can expect to hear sirens and spot official vehicles dashing toward simulated landing points.

The two-day exercise is part of the Department of Homeland Security's regional protection plan, Operation Vigilant Sentry. The Department of Defense and federal immigration and border protection forces also will participate.

The exercise is the product of a "homeland security presidential mandate." Secret Service agents also may participate because at least one top-level Bush administration official might be on the scene to observe, Miami-Dade County officials said. They would not say who.

The drill was on the drawing board soon after the Sept. 11 attacks. That was long before Cuban dictator Fidel Castro became ill and stepped down July 31, handing power to his brother, Raul. And homeland security authorities insist the exercise isn't specific to events in Cuba.

"But these days everybody knows we're talkin' Cuba," said Robert Rehr, operations manager for the Palm Beach County Division of Emergency Management.

In Palm Beach County, the maneuvers could involve simulated landings of refugees in various locales. Among those mentioned are beaches in Boca Raton, Ocean Ridge and Jupiter. The actors playing the refugees, including Cayne, will not disembark from boats or rafts, but police, fire rescue and health officials will receive word as if they had just landed.

"Law enforcement will be expected to contain those people, and fire-rescue and health workers to see to their needs," Rehr said. "We will also be testing the coordination of communications and intelligence between the federal, state and local levels."

That includes testing computer compatibility and ensuring that everyone can access each other's information so as not to duplicate efforts, Rehr said.

The first responders haven't been told exactly what time the events will unfold and what the "refugees" will do once they land.

"They don't necessarily tell us because they want this to be like the real event," said Paul Miller, spokesman for the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office.

Elizabeth Calzadilla-Fiallo, spokeswoman for the Miami-Dade Emergency Operations Center, also is being kept in the dark.

"The Coast Guard is running this, and I asked them how we would know the exercise had been triggered," she said. "They told me we won't know. We are just supposed to react to what we hear as if it were really happening."

In Miami-Dade, real news of Fidel Castro's death would provoke large street parties, Calzadilla-Fiallo said.

"I think the biggest job would be containing those celebrations," she said. "I really don't think we're going to see a mass migration from Cuba if he dies. They've been living under the rule of his brother for months and the people there seem comfortable with that."

One person who knows what will happen during the two-day drill is Rear Adm. David Kunkel, head of the Coast Guard's Miami station and the Homeland Security Task Force Southeast. Kunkel will head the exercises and spring the scenarios.

Unlike in Palm Beach County, actual boat landings may occur in Monroe and Broward counties, said Lt. Cmdr. Chris O'Neil, a Coast Guard spokesman. Apart from that, he revealed few details.

All 14 Palm Beach County hospitals will be on call, and some may receive simulated patients, said Tim O'Connor, spokesman for the county health department.

Mary Russell, preparedness specialist at Boca Raton Community Hospital, helped organize the simulated beach landing in which Cayne will play a role.

"The responders might be confronted with dehydration, gastrointestinal issues, stress issues," she said. "But they also have to be ready to treat people with preexisting conditions - sight or hearing problems, people with chronic conditions who are off their medications since they got in that boat, or it could be an infectious disease," such as AIDS.

Russell said she has enlisted not just Spanish speakers but people who speak various tongues. The exercise may test the use of the AT&T language line, which offers translators in about 40 languages, she said.

She emphasized that the emergency responders, including law enforcement, must be ready to treat both physical and emotional duress.

"You might get someone who wants to break out of a hospital, or people trying to rush the hospital to free their loved ones," Russell said.

Cayne agrees that a sudden mass immigration presents many possibilities.

"These days, we have to be ready for anything and everything that might land on our shores," she said.

Copyright İ 2007, The Palm Beach Post. All rights reserved.

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