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Security Efforts Make This Game One of a Kind

January 30, 2002|DIANE PUCIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW ORLEANS — Outside the Superdome Tuesday afternoon, city workers sawed off the tops of trees.

They weren't cutting off dead limbs. They were clearing space for FBI sharpshooters.

Sunday's Super Bowl XXXVI is the first sporting event in U.S. history to be designated a National Special Security Event. There have only been 11 other National Special Security Events--things like presidential inaugurations and United Nations gatherings.

But in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, the Super Bowl, and, starting next week, the Olympics, have become the focus of the most massive security efforts ever undertaken in conjunction with sporting events in the United States.

Today, the Superdome resembles an onion, with layers of fences and barriers protecting the arena and the surrounding streets. No cars will be allowed within three blocks of the dome. The Superdome parking garage and its 5,000 spaces will be closed as of Thursday.

It's just as well, because starting today, the five main roads nearest the stadium will be either partially or totally closed. The Superdome exits and entrances from Interstate 10 will also be closed.

Banned from the dome will be: umbrellas, coolers, backpacks, strollers, any bag bigger than a purse, binocular and camera cases, camcorders, cameras with lenses longer than six inches and diaper bags (unless you can also produce the baby.)

Also on the taboo list are Frisbees, banners, noisemakers, bottles and cans, and that favorite accoutrements of the well-dressed football fan--the big, foam No. 1 finger. There were many sighs of relief when the Green Bay Packers were eliminated because no federal, state or city agency wanted to tell Packer fans that foam Cheeseheads would not be allowed. Californians will be distressed to know that beach balls are also banned.

More than 2,000 security people will be in place in and around the Superdome for the game Sunday.

Security forces have conducted mock drills imitating every imaginable disaster that might happen, even trying to simulate the sudden onset of a mysterious illness striking thousands of people inside the stadium.

The teams were warned that any player with an outstanding arrest warrant would not be allowed into the dome, and any player or owner who is used to being accompanied by a bodyguard carrying a weapon would need to become unused to having a weapon-wearing bodyguard.

In addition to protecting the Superdome, a total of 48 agencies--including the Secret Service, FBI, Louisiana National Guard and local police--must protect the hotels housing the St. Louis Rams, the New England Patriots, NFL officials and more than 3,000 media representatives. They must also protect the streets of the French Quarter where hundreds of thousands of fans celebrating the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras will walk day and night for the next five days.

"Compared to previous Super Bowls," said Milt Ahlerich, NFL vice president of security, "the measures we've taken to protect the players and the fans have not increased a little bit. They have increased by huge degrees of magnitude."

When the Super Bowl was designated a National Special Security Event, the responsibility for coordinating security measures was taken out of the hands of local law enforcement and given to the Secret Service. And Mike James, U.S. Secret Service special agent, is the man in charge.

Superdome gates will be opened five hours before the game Sunday. James urged fans to arrive when those gates open. There will be three security points where people will be searched.

"The best scenario," James said, "is if a person arrives carrying only his ticket."

There will be hand searches and the same sort of magnetic security wands travelers find at airports. Anyone carrying electronic items such as cell phones or pagers will be subject to longer, more intense checks. "Please," Ahlerich said, "on this one day, leave your cell phone at home."

There will be a no-fly zone over the Superdome on Super Sunday. Only fighter jets will be seen in the sky above the game.

There will be SWAT teams, FBI agents and state troopers, both in uniform and out, walking through every hall, catwalk and corridor inside and outside the arena. There will be sharpshooters with trained eyes encircling the outside of the Superdome.

One security official at the dome Tuesday said, "My best advice? Come early, come naked."

He was kidding, but not by much.

It is not only the arena that is going to watched. The U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs Service as well as the New Orleans Harbor Police are charged with securing dozens of miles of Mississippi riverfront filled with cargo ships.

"We want to send a strong message," New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial said, "that New Orleans is the safest place in America."

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