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Posted December 12, 2006 by publisher in Cuba Human Rights

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BY OSCAR CORRAL | Miami Herald

Picture this: Cuban leader Fidel Castro dies. Cubans board rafts and take to the seas. In South Florida, exiles board boats and head for Cuba to pick up desperate relatives.

The Florida Straits get jammed with thousands of boats on choppy seas. People start to drown. Chaos erupts.

The U.S. government wants to avoid such a tragedy. And today, federal, state and local authorities performed a drill in Broward County on how federal, state and local agencies would respond to a mass exodus from the communist island to South Florida.

‘‘In the military you always plan for the worst-case scenario,’’ said James Brooks, spokesman for the Naval Air Station in Key West.

Among the real options on the table today: closing all marinas in South Florida, shutting down the airports, even limiting the sale of fuel.

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

About 500 people—including the Department of Homeland Security, Coast Guard, FBI, police departments in Miami, Coral Springs, Broward, Monroe and Miami-Dade counties—dealt with worst case scenarios and showed all the warts in the plan.

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Commander Chris O’Neil said the government will watch for different ‘‘indicators’’ to determine their level of response when Fidel Castro’s death is announced—such as a spike in migrants heading to Florida.

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

The two-day mock run this week will be evaluated, with corrections made, and then a real run-through—using boats, planes, personnel—is scheduled for March 7 and 8, unless conditions change on the island.

There were staffing concerns today—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 off the ship, precious minutes were lost as officers in the command center tried to determine whether to call the Key West or Miami coast guard office.

In another instance, two boats with some 25 people landed in Pompano Beach and a dozen showed signs of the measles, so health care workers scrambled to figure out the best way to transport and quarantine them—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.

The public could expect twice-a-day briefings from the multiagency task force.

Amos Rojas Jr, special agent in charge of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said authorities want the public to respond with calm and stay off the streets—and the sea.

‘‘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 trek is very dangerous.’’

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