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If It Happened Here 

A bioterrorism attack on Los Angeles might look a lot like this

Thursday, Feb 20 2003
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At 10 a.m. Sunday morning, the Centers for Disease Control holds a press conference to announce that researchers at the Army infectious diseases research lab at Fort Detrich, Maryland, have just confirmed that the substance found on the Cessna venturi is finely milled, weapons-grade anthrax. Judging from the size of the stainless-steel container (the size of a 5-pound bag of flour), they estimate the weight of the release at 2 kilograms.

Over at Caltech, an assistant professor in biotechnology quickly figures out that a package that size amounts to some 10 trillion spores. Then referencing a Defense Intelligence Agency study that concluded that 50 percent of the people who inhale 25,000 spores apiece will die, the professor tells a reporter on live TV that there was enough anthrax on that plane to kill "200 million souls" (which is true enough only if one assumes that every single spore ends up in someone's lungs and not, as most do, on trees, lawns, roads and roofs).

People have been leaving Los Angeles all night, but with that announcement the floodgates break. Residents of the containment-zone area burst through wooden barricades, hurtle though intersections, ignore both traffic cops and signal lights, and fly up freeway on-ramps, only to discover a sea of brake lights. When northbound lanes on Interstate 5 become gridlocked, motorists drive on shoulders, median strips, or even switch over to the southbound lanes, instantly turning them into northbound lanes too.

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Within hours there is a 400-mile traffic jam between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Gas stations quickly run out of fuel, but when station owners put up "No Gas" signs, infuriated motorists, in one instance, push over their gas pumps and, in another, shoot their windows out. Alternative routes quickly become impassable, too, as local vigilantes block routes into their towns with school buses and trailer trucks to keep out "infected" motorists from L.A.

Recognizing that the freeways are unusable, some Los Angeles residents try to get out of the city on surface streets, two-lane roads, dirt roads and, for those with four-wheel drive, fire trails over the San Gabriels. One white-faced driver takes a turn so fast on Angeles Crest Highway that he flies off a cliff in a cloud of dust, a tragedy that doesn't even cause the cars behind him to slow down. Raggedy fleets of small boats and large yachts pour out of marinas in Long Beach, San Pedro and Marina del Rey, headed for Catalina, San Diego, or any other place as long as it isn't L.A. In Venice, three young men break into a sporting-goods store, steal three kayaks and paddle out to sea.

In the meantime, at governmental offices in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Washington, officials at all levels pull out their bioterrorism playbooks, open the pages to anthrax and start issuing commands. All incoming flights are diverted from LAX, and all outgoing flights are stopped on the ramp. M-16-toting National Guard troops run through the corridors, while bomb-sniffing dogs jump over ticket counters and paw through the luggage. At the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Coast Guard patrol boats fly across the water, while 18-year-old apprentice seamen, in flak jackets and steel helmets, finger the triggers of their .60-caliber machine guns. Beneath the surface, scuba divers swim through the murky water under 400-foot container ships, looking for planted mines. On the docks, harried inspectors turn up the sensitivity on their cargo-container radiation detectors until they start getting false hits on natural background radiation in Italian granite countertops and Spanish ceramic tiles.

The FAA grounds all non-scheduled privately owned small planes within California, which so irritates one actor with his own Citation II at Santa Monica Airport that he takes off at 2 a.m. without permission, flying low and fast to the east, without navigation lights and ignoring repeated requests from the tower to land. He makes it all the way to Altadena before an Air National Guard F-16 pilot equipped with infrared sensors and night-vision goggles slips in behind him and fires off two quick bursts from a six-barrel cannon, sending the Citation II crashing into the flanks of Mount Wilson. The ensuing brushfire burns all the way to the solar observatory.

In Washington, D.C., the secretary of defense puts military bases on the highest alert level — Threat Condition Delta (used when a terror attack has just happened or is currently in progress) — while radar-equipped Navy E2 Hawkeye early-warning aircraft fly offshore and a Los Angeles class fast-attack submarine cruises at periscope depth though the San Pedro channel. The governor mobilizes the National Guard to protect 450 "high risk" targets, ranging from Metro Rail to City Hall. Dozens of FBI agents, wearing bulletproof vests and carrying shotguns, take up stations around the Federal Building in Westwood. Humvees equipped with Stinger ground-to-air missiles surround the Port of Los Angeles and LAX.ä

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