When Castro dies, they know the drill

December 13, 2006

Miami Herald- Oscar Corral

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.'

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