PERRY -- Just 10 months after construction started on the massive Guardian Centers mock city for disaster training, the first exercises were being held there this week.
Starting on Tuesday, the GBI, Georgia Search and Rescue and U.S. Marines performed various training exercises.
The GBI blew out a wall in one of the buildings, specially designed for that purpose, to practice a breach in a hostage crisis.
On Thursday, Georgia Search and Rescue teams from Houston and Bibb counties were the first to use the floodable neighborhood patterned after New Orleans Ninth Ward. They went out in boats to rescue role players from the rooftops, including some who were trapped in the attics and had to be extracted by cutting a hole in the roof. Some were incapacitated and not able to get off the roof by themselves.
The Marines are part of the Chemical Biological and Incident Response Force, which assists local, state and federal officials in emergency response situations.
About 70 people were involved in the exercises.
Jason Jones, a Centerville firefighter who works on the Georgia Search and Rescue team, was among those who participated in the flood rescues. The first and last time he did anything like it was when the team responded to assist with Hurricane Katrina.
Its as close to real life as you can possibly get, he said.
Bob Rea came from the United Kingdom to witness the exercise. He runs a similar but much smaller facility there and came as an adviser. He said he didnt know of another facility like it in the world.
Words cant really capture what it does, he said. Its just awesome.
Major disasters today typically involve response from many nations, he said, and he envisions the complex being used as an international facility where nations can train together.
The center, located in the former Northrop Grumman plant in Perry, is largely complete. It includes two blocks that simulate demolished buildings, a mock subway with real subway cars, a one-mile interstate, a command center and numerous other buildings. Built with private funds, it is intended to allow military and civilian emergency response personnel to train together in major disaster scenarios.
Geoff Burkart, Guardian Centers chief executive officer, spent years researching and developing the concept before finally landing a major investor that allowed it to come into being. On Thursday, he stood alongside the flooded neighborhood and watched as rescuers made his original vision a reality.
We are finally here, he said. Our plans and expectations appear to be working, and the clients are very pleased.
While there are no other exercises scheduled, Burkart said they are in talks with agencies, and he is expects a much larger exercise will occur in the spring.
Members of the Fort Valley State University drama department participated in the disaster drill. Prior to the exercise they received training on how to behave like real victims. They also practiced special-effects skills, doing makeup to simulate various wounds.
Other exercises included rescuing victims from underneath rubble. The demolished buildings are equipped with pods underneath the rubble, with entrance tunnels, and live role players wait there to be rescued. The Marines also participated in responding to a massive wreck on the interstate that included several cars and a bus. Throwing an element of surprise into the scenario, they had no idea they would be doing that until the exercise began.