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What Happens In Vegas (Might Be Less Serious If Major FEMA Nuke Attack Exercise) Stays In Vegas — Why Political/Business Pressure To Move Drill Treats Public Like Children On Terror Preparedness

November 23rd, 2009 · 6 Comments

I wanted to point out a story now playing out in Las Vegas, Nevada, which to me is another example of how the public is too often infantilized when it comes to information on serious terrorist threats, including weapons of mass destruction — And, as a result, why we as citizens are not as prepared or as informed as we should be.

FEMA has scheduled its 2010 “National Level Exercise” (formerly called TOPOFF) — which is designed to test the capabilities of local, state and federal responders to catastrophic events — for Las Vegas in May. The planned scenario is a mock nuclear blast; 10,000 responders are expected to participate in the drill.

However, the Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Authority, backed by the state’s senior senator, Majority Leader Harry Reid, is asking FEMA to postpone the drill, and if not at least change the scenario from a terrorist attack to natural disaster, citing the city’s economic woes.

Reid sent a letter to U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano arguing:

“At a time when Las Vegas is beginning to recover from these economic ills, to simulate a nuclear detonation in the heart of the city would unacceptably harm the Southern Nevadan economy…at this time, economic recovery efforts would be stymied, or reversed entirely, by artificially creating anxiety surrounding tourism and investment in Las Vegas.”

The senator’s web site has this addendum:

“While Reid acknowledges the importance of these training exercises and appreciates FEMA’s recognition of Las Vegas as a high profile target, holding such an event at this time would create unnecessary anxiety and harm efforts to boost tourism and investment in Las Vegas.”

I realize the concern is that the exercise will highlight the fact that Sin City is a top potential terror target. But it probably is, something Reid acknowledges in the letter. I find somewhat farfetched to believe that having a drill there will impact tourist/conventioneer decisionmaking? I covered the TOPOFF 3 drill in 2005 in New Jersey and Connecticut, which also included a weapons of mass destruction simulation. I don’t think that had much of an effect on slot playing at Atlantic City and or Connecticut’s Foxwoods & Mohegan Sun casinos.

The opposition to the disaster drill is a bit ironic as the #1 movie on screens across the U.S. for the past couple weeks has been “2012″ in which the entire Vegas Strip is dramatically destroyed in a…disaster. Do you think audiences are changing their travel plans upon leaving the theater?

2012 las vegas


The thing that bothers me most here is not about the exercise itself, but the contention that somehow having a practice drill with a nuclear weapon would scare Americans from traveling to Vegas. It just plays into the narrative (I would say canard) that the public cannot handle any discussion of serious potential terror threats (particularly involving weapons of mass destruction) without becoming scared out of their wits. And as a result, it prevents our leaders from having an open dialogue which might actually improve our ability to respond to a scenario — which has been acknowledged as a possibility by U.S. Presidents of both parties.

One of the major themes of this blog is that there is a need for government officials to raise potentially ’scary’ topics with the populace but do it in a responsible, constructive way  – and that public can deal with that information if it is delivered in a trustworthy manner in the proper context. Conducting a nuclear explosion drill does not mean that officials expect such an incident to happen in Vegas any time soon, but the possibility makes it useful to train for such a catastrophic occurrence — and I believe Americans will comprehend that.

I understand that Senator Reid is just trying to be responsive to his constituents. But is his opposition here really serving Nevadans best interests? An article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal last week indicated that FEMA has already agreed to move the exercise off of the main Vegas Strip to another location in the County. With the Majority Leader up for reelection in 2010, I imagine there may be some armtwisting done on DHS to make further changes, including postponing the drill. But if the FEMA believes the Vegas nuclear exercise is important, I hope the agency ends up making the decision based on preparedness rather than politics.

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Tags: City Preparedness · Federal Emergency Management Administration · Nuclear Terrorism · Preparedness Ideas

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bill Salvin // Nov 23, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    This is spot on! The public CAN handle an emergency response drill like adults. Read Amanda Ripley’s book “Unthinkable-Who Survives when disaster strikes and why” It is a brilliant read and proves that what you’ve written here is correct. Not only can we handle it, we usually do pretty well.

    Great post.

  • 2 William R. Cumming // Nov 24, 2009 at 3:34 am

    INteresting how we the citizenry now know that the 921 Nevada nuclear tests poisoned more than a little of the water supply of Nevada. Guess Reid would not want that “Secret”to get out either.

    Nevada does not yet have a sustainable economy IMO as more and more Indian Casinos dig into its revenues.

    But hey the full-mop gear exercises for Flag Ranks at Nevada Test Site a good one to make believers of those who think fighting wars in a nuclear environment NO PROBLEMO!

  • 3 Jimmy Jazz // Nov 25, 2009 at 10:20 am

    I agree wholeheartedly with Bill on this one. This is less the public not being able to stomach disaster scenarios, and more public officials infantilizing the public by not letting them even think about disaster scenarios.

    As you’ve noted before, the public by and large wants more information about what would happen during a disaster, specifically about how the government would respond, so the desire is there. We continue, though, to pat the public on the head and tell them to go back to the kiddie table while Mommy and Daddy discuss big people subjects.

    It’s horrifying how little we trust the public to act, counter to everything we know about how the public acts in disaster situations. Shameful.


  • 4 J.P. Trainor // Nov 25, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Reid is lost along with many other elected rep.s
    not doing there jobs and not following reports released to them by DHS , FEMA , on NIMS.
    Anyone in office now will not be relected if they are not onboard with true preparedness . We need drills and events of this nature to take place in realistic settings . Not down the street were its not going to happen in real life . If you were to practice hotel evac. or rescue you would not go to a residential section to do so . As for economic impact during a drill . More money will be spent at those gaming tables before and after the drills than if the drills were not held in Vegas at all. You will listen to first responders
    and the departments that oversee them or your political careers will be over. First responders put there lives on the line to save ours . So if they
    request main street so be it.

  • 5 Survival Time // Feb 27, 2010 at 11:42 am

    I feel as many do, government agencies doing ‘drills’ with nuclear war scenarios have haunting resemblances to 9/11. Which was as you may not know… a “drill” involving muiltiple hijacked aircraft.

    Hence the confusion, delay in reacting those involved believed it to be part of the exercise!

    Instead agencies should be more focused on citizen-level preparedness, help the general population prepare for disasters of ANY kind, with that formal knowledge the average person can react in a manner which will lessen the impact,rather than contribute to it.

    Let’s face it, barring ‘terror’ attacks, natural disasters are going to be the biggest threat to human lives, second only to financial collapse which will be momentary disruption until those poor unprepared people learn how to get along without using money as the only means to obtain goods n services they need.

    Which brings me back to my original point…teach people how to stock food, water and supplies that will make them less dependent on government, thereby increasing their individual chances for survival in the face of any disaster.

    My website will give most any layperson a very good head start, the time to think about preparing is NOW..not later when something happens…then it’s too late and you become dependent on the support of local/national assistance.

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    [...] memo comes in the context of a debate in the emergency management community about drilling policy as described in an article in April by the Washington Post’s Spencer Hsu: The [...]

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