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L.A. disaster drill plan questioned

Times Staff Writer

Notice to Westsiders: Disregard the thwack-thwack-thwack of Black Hawk helicopter blades you might be hearing. The West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus is not, repeat not, under attack.

The California National Guard is slated to launch a three-day training exercise today titled Operation Vector. Plans call for a Hollywood-style convergence of a simulated natural disaster and faux bio-terror attack designed to test how well Guard teams work with local emergency responders. Much of the action will take place on the VA campus.

On Wednesday, the exercise is scheduled to continue in the Hollywood Hills with a fake chemical attack and at the Port of Los Angeles with the “siege” of a passenger-laden cruise ship (portrayed by a Coast Guard cutter). Thursday’s simulated disaster will be the collision of two airliners at Universal Studios.

Although no one would dispute the need for emergency workers to be prepared, some residents and providers of services to veterans expressed concern Monday that the drill on the north side of the VA grounds could unsettle neighbors and veterans being treated at the campus.

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Wendy-Sue Rosen, chairwoman of the Brentwood Community Council, said she first heard about the drill Friday from the office of Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles). “I’m concerned that without notification to community and veterans groups there’s no time for input about what the problems are with this type of exercise,” she said.

Last September, Rosen said, the Army Reserve scheduled a change of command ceremony on the VA grounds, including the firing of several blank rounds from a Howitzer, that conflicted with an art fair the community was holding nearby.

In an April 13 letter to local VA Director Charles Dorman and constituents, Waxman questioned whether service providers and clinical departments on the campus had received adequate notice so that they could prepare themselves and any veterans being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder or other combat-related problems.

“I am most concerned that the presence of a large military helicopter at the campus will be detrimental to the rehabilitation and recovery of recently returning veterans,” Waxman said.

Jenny Gonzalez, the VA campus’ emergency manager, sought to reassure on that score, saying the two Black Hawk helicopters would be landing at MacArthur Field, on the north side of the grounds, “far away from patient-occupied buildings.” She also noted that there would be smoke plumes but no actual explosions. The VA medical center itself would not be a setting for any of the drill activity, Gonzalez said.

The drill is scheduled to begin at 5 a.m. today at the Museum of Tolerance on Pico Boulevard with the aftermath of a simulated 7.9-magnitude earthquake, said Lt. Col. Mike Tapia of the California National Guard’s 9th Civil Support Team in Los Alamitos. Tapia’s team is to lead the exercise with help from National Guard members from Colorado and Nevada.

Also scheduled to participate are emergency and hazardous materials workers from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, the county coroner’s office and the Los Angeles Police Department.

The scenario will continue on the VA campus. The “tremor” will cause an “explosion” at a laboratory operated by an Al Qaeda cell. Plumes of smoke will rise from vacant Building 158, which will be sitting in for the terrorist lab. According to the script, the explosion will release ricin, a deadly toxin, and several “casualties” in need of decontamination will be rushed to UCLA Medical Center.

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The drill will end for the day about 1 p.m.

Toni Reinis, executive director of New Directions, a program on the VA campus for homeless veterans with substance abuse and other problems, got a notice about the security exercise Friday.

“My concern is that we have men that are combat veterans,” she said. “What they need and why they came to us is to be able to feel safe.”

martha.groves@latimes.com

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