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December 2006
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When Castro dies, they know the drill

Posted on Wed, Dec. 13, 2006

When Castro dies, they know the drill
The Broward Convention Center became a command center for local, state
and federal response to the death of Fidel Castro and how authorities
here will react.

Picture this: Cuban leader Fidel Castro dies, Cuba’s military battles
protesters on the streets, and frantic Cubans take to the seas. In South
Florida, exiles board boats and head for Cuba to pick up desperate
relatives — or to help start an armed insurrection against the
47-year-old dictatorship.

The Florida Straits get jammed with boat traffic on choppy seas. People
drown. Chaos erupts.

The U.S. government believes this could happen. On Tuesday federal,
state and local authorities accelerated preparations for Castro’s death
— starting a two-day drill on how authorities plan to respond to a mass
exodus to Florida.

As 400 emergency officials and others held the tabletop exercise at the
Broward County Convention Center, Miami police sent an e-mail to
reporters Tuesday afternoon warning of unsubstantiated rumors about
Castro’s ”possible death,” and even Gov. Jeb Bush was alerted about
the buzz in South Florida.


Castro’s absence at a military parade Dec. 2 in Havana to mark his 80th
birthday has stoked the rumors — just as U.S. officials mulled over
scenarios to prepare for a change on the communist island.

Journalists in Havana said Tuesday that the rumors of Castro’s death
were rampant there as well, but that no unusual activity or military
presence was noted in the streets. The U.S. Interests Section said there
were no new reports on Castro’s health.

At the command post exercise, Amos Rojas Jr., South Florida regional
director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said authorities
want the public to respond with calm when Castro dies and stay off the
streets — and seas.

‘The message we want to send is, `Do not throw yourself to the waters
and try to head to Cuba,’ ” Rojas told reporters in Spanish. “Be
patient, the trip is very dangerous.”

In one scenario, Raúl Castro would authorize ”use of force to quell
opposition” to his government once his brother Fidel dies.
”Demonstrations in Cuba are met with open force causing injuries and
deaths to civilians,” a one-page scenario stated. ‘U.S.-based Cuban
resistance groups have begun issuing inflated and false press releases
describing the dire actions in Cuba. These groups are advocating the
violent overthrow of the Raúl Castro regime to `liberate Cuba forever.’ ”

“Some local Cuban-Americans began arming themselves and heading to Cuba
to either fight for the [country’s] liberation, or to bring back family
members to the United States.”

Among the real options on the table Tuesday: closing all marinas in
South Florida; shutting down airports; even limiting fuel sales.

U.S. Border Patrol could monitor traffic on roads leading to marinas,
stopping drivers hauling boats with extra gasoline and provisions for a
days-long trip, said spokesman Steve McDonald.

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Chris O’Neil said authorities will monitor
for key indicators coming from the island, including an uptick in
raft-building, Cubans en masse heading for the beaches and a spike in
migrants in the Florida Straits and off the eastern tip of Cuba.

Key to the intelligence gathering are the Miami police Strategic
Information Unit and the local FBI’s Cuba squad, which are participating
in the drill.


About 400 officials and emergency workers — including the Department of
Homeland Security, Coast Guard, and police departments in Coral Springs
and Broward, Monroe and Miami-Dade counties — dealt with worst-case
scenarios, seeking to expose any gaps in the plan.

There were staffing concerns — like a dearth of Spanish-speaking agents
— and communication glitches.

In one scenario, a child injured at sea and brought aboard a Coast Guard
cutter needed to be airlifted to the mainland. Precious minutes passed
as officers in the command center tried to determine whether to call the
Key West or Miami Coast Guard office.

In another example, two boats with about 25 people landed in Pompano
Beach and a dozen showed signs of the measles, so healthcare workers
scrambled to determine the best way to transport and quarantine the
migrants — without exposing others.

”This is a run-through to see what holds water and what doesn’t work.
The goal is to be as realistic as possible,” O’Neil said.

This week’s drill will be evaluated, with corrections made, and then
another run-through — using boats, planes and emergency personnel — is
scheduled for March 7 and 8, unless conditions change on the island.

”In the military, you always plan for the worst-case scenario,” said
James Brooks, spokesman for the Naval Air Station in Key West. Zachary
Mann, Special Agent for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the
goal is to prevent chaos and save lives. “What we’re trying to do is
discourage the illegal migration — it’s extremely dangerous.”

Miami Herald staff writers Erika Beras, Gary Fineout and Frances Robles
contributed to this report.

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