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Island Turns Into 'Armed Camp'

With Tuesday's G-8 summit on the horizon, a small community is facing intensive -- and intrusive -- security measures, residents say.

June 07, 2004|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — From the shaded front porch where she sits in the afternoons, Gina Burt has watched the comings and goings of the federal agents. She has gotten used to the dull whir of the helicopters over her house at night and the lights raking through her quiet neighborhood.

But when she heard that 17 immigrants had been arrested during the recent security crackdown, that was enough for her. She's decided to leave town for a while.

Never mind that the foreigners were Eastern European, not Iraqi, as Burt had thought -- or that they had been picked up by the INS, not the Department of Homeland Security. Over the last few weeks, she has stopped feeling safe.

"How do we know somebody from Iraq hasn't been living here for 10 years, building something in their shed?" said Burt, 30.

As Tuesday's G-8 summit on nearby Sea Island approaches, intensive security measures are underway on both the local barrier islands and in the mainland port town of Brunswick.

In Brunswick, where anti-globalization protesters plan to march, surveillance cameras pivot silently on a quaint clapboard watchtower. Behind the delicate arcs of sprinkler systems on Sea Island, clusters of armored vehicles are ringed with concertina wire.

Gradually, a population proud of its relaxed, Southern lifestyle has had to come to terms with strict federal security measures.

"We're an armed camp," Harris Lydon, 69, said of St. Simons Island. "This place is so locked down."

The three-day summit has been identified as a potential target for a terrorist attack. Authorities also are preparing for protests by environmental, human rights and anti-globalization groups.

Beginning late last week, military security zones were activated around Sea Island, an exclusive resort community connected to St. Simons Island by a narrow causeway. The Coast Guard will intercept any vessels that come within three miles of Sea Island.

Surface-to-air missiles are in place in several locations to enforce a no-fly zone, and airspace has been restricted all along Georgia's coastline.

Concrete barricades have been placed at the island's entrance, and vehicles headed in that direction are being swept for bombs and weapons. On the long causeway that connects St. Simons Island to Brunswick -- one that carries an average of 28,000 vehicles per day -- there are prohibitions against walking, bicycling, parking, stopping or standing.

For weeks, citizens have been urged to look for -- and report -- anything suspicious: broken locks, unusual inquiries or out-of-the-ordinary behavior. Hotel staff reportedly have been warned to be on the alert for strange smells and inquiries, such as people offering to pay more than the going rate for a room.

Homeowners in Savannah, on the mainland, even received letters ordering them to lock up their garbage cans on the eve of the summit or have them seized by city authorities.

Brunswick police asked for reports of "people taking pictures of the undersides of bridges, not normal tourist things," said spokesman Kevin Jones. A Coast Guard spokesman said people living or working by the water have been asked to keep an eye out for suspicious scuba divers.

The mammoth security operation emanates from the Multi-Agency Coordinating Center -- located in a large warehouse-type building on coastal Georgia whose location cannot be revealed for security reasons.

Inside, a warren of cubicles has been built to accommodate teams from the Secret Service and about 50 other state and federal agencies.

Banks of radio transmitters are laid out, set to a range of frequencies.

One recent day, clean-cut Secret Service agents typed on laptops while an FBI group received a briefing. The seal of the Secret Service, which heads the effort, was projected on the wall.

Several locals have complained that the drumbeat of security warnings, combined with authorities' reluctance to divulge specific information, has led to an atmosphere verging on paranoia.

Wendy Beeker, who owns Hattie's, a bookstore in downtown Brunswick, said that one particularly vigilant business owner recently alerted police to a group of senior citizens who were taking photographs while sight-seeing. "Ninety-year-olds with their pants up around their chest," Beeker said.

"What's unnerving is that we get no credible information," she said. "It's almost as if [the authorities] want to induce this kind of hysteria."

Among rumors that have wafted through the area was the story that the 17 immigrant laborers who were detained were Iraqis and another about how federal authorities had asked a local funeral home to order 2,000 body bags in advance of the summit, said Lauren Nobles, who hosts a morning talk show on WGIG-AM, a Brunswick radio station. None are true, officials said.

Last week, Nobles' callers debated the legality of the planned random searches, when they were not comparing notes on the perfect tomato sandwich. (When one caller suggested using a toasted bagel, Nobles warned: "Don't get Yankee on us.")

In this Republican county, which has been loyal to President Bush, people are protective of their personal liberties, Nobles said. On his show, one caller vented her anger about seat belt, helmet and no-smoking laws.

"People are concerned about government intrusion," Nobles said. The security measures "may be necessary," he added, "but does the government have that right?"

At a dock in Brunswick, Robert Knight, a 70-year-old shrimp fisherman, grimaced at federal restrictions that for the time being prohibit shrimp boats from sailing into nearby international waters without jumping through bureaucratic hoops.

But rumors of terrorism are not enough to persuade him to leave town.

"I've got a 50-50 chance," he said. "Wherever I go, that might be the place they want to tear up."

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