By Nancy Allen
Agricultural experts have been saying in recent years that an act of terrorism against the United States may not come in the form of a car bomb or jetliners aimed at tall buildings, but in the form of a contagious animal disease purposely introduced to infect the country's livestock.
On Saturday 100 or more local, state and federal officials will gather at the Mercer County Fairgrounds for a mock agri-terrorism exercise to test the county's readiness in reacting to such an event.
It is being organized by the Mercer County Homeland Security & Emergency Management (EM) office and will be the first exercise of its type done in the state.
Interim EM Director Wanda Dicke, who herself farms in the county, spearheaded the effort. Dicke said the lessons learned from the mock drill will be helpful to the county, where agriculture is its lifeblood.
"In our county where agriculture is so important, I felt we should do this," Dicke said. "It should be very interesting and very educational ... we may flub up, but we'll learn from it." Mercer County consistently ranks first in the state in agricultural income, due to its livestock. Livestock accounted for $200 million in gross revenue for the county in 2003, according to information from the Ohio Agricultural Statistics Service.
The fairgrounds has been mapped out to replicate a portion of the county east of Grand Lake St. Marys and south past Coldwater to state Route 274. The mock farm, called Freebird Farm, is located on state Route 29 between Fleetfoot and Meyer roads.
Hay bales dressed to look like hogs will be used as props and moved around as the scenario unfolds, Dicke said. Some parts of the exercise will be simulated, while others will actually have to be completed by people using real equipment.
She only would say the event would be an infectious animal disease involving hogs, so the participants' reactions will be spontaneous.
Dicke said some of the players Saturday will be the Rev. Doug Meyer, pastor at St. John Lutheran Church in Celina, who will portray the pastor who comforts the distraught farmer, and Ken Obringer, director of public relations at Mercer County Community Hospital, Coldwater, who will be the public information officer responsible for releasing information to the media. A local veterinarian also is expected to participate, and a hog truck from Mercer Landmark will be used.
"Most of the people will be the people you would actually have handle such an incident," Dicke said.
Others expected to participate Saturday include officials from the county soil and water office, farm service agency, sheriff's office, highway patrol, fire departments, the FBI and a couple of USDA veterinarians, Dicke said. All three Mercer County Commissioners also will be there, Dicke said.
After the exercise is over, around noon, participants will do an informal critique of how it went. A written action report will be created and then presented during a 10 a.m. public meeting on Sept. 16 at the Mercer County Central Services Building in Celina, where the exercise will be further critiqued and discussed.
Dicke said a yearly assessment of the county in 2003 showed its preparation in dealing with an agri-terrorism event to be a weakness.
Mercer County Farm Service Agency Chris Gibbs said the effects of an agri-terrorism event affecting the county's livestock industry would be devastating. Gibbs was one of the many people on the committee that organized the exercise.
"Anything that would happen where that industry would be adversely affected from an agri-terrorism event would have ramifications far, far beyond the borders of Mercer County," Gibbs said. "If a highly contagious disease would take hold, all production would be shut off, animals would have to be destroyed and all trade would shut off ... There would be state and nationwide trade issues."
Gibbs said he expects a lot of mistakes to be made Saturday, but that is OK.
"We don't want to make mistakes when we have the real deal," he said. "We want to make them now so we can follow up on them and correct them before or if we are called on to do this."