The three Hofmann sisters from Little Falls, Minn., were told to play a scary version of pretend for the day. Their house had been destroyed, their parents had both died, and they would stay in an emergency Red Cross shelter at Camp Ripley.

"Sometimes it feels like it's real," said 10-year-old Sarah Hofmann, a volunteer in a simulation Wednesday to test what-ifs for real emergencies.

The scenario was part of a four-day exercise by the Minnesota National Guard in partnership with more than 25 state, federal and international agencies to test a large-scale disaster response. More than 175 personnel gathered in Camp Ripley, St. Paul, and Duluth for "Vigilant Vortex," which challenged them to come up with a functional plan to deal with a hazardous chemical spill in Brookston, Minn., and six tornado touchdowns across the state.

The primary goal was to practice smooth communication and planning.

"You're not handing out business cards at a disaster," said Maj. Robert Younger, a lead controller for the event.

In the control cell at Camp Ripley, National Guard officials plotted out key crisis locations hit by the simulated disaster, speaking with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and other agencies in St. Paul and Duluth via a high-tech video conference. They assessed the damage: eight dead and 46 injured during a tornado near Camp Ripley, a water tower knocked over in tribal lands near Mille Lacs. Who needs air support? Who can provide hospital space?

About 50 volunteers were stationed at a nearby Red Cross shelter: almost 100 cots laid out in rows, and specific areas sectioned off for mental health support, religious counseling, registered nurses and other services. Volunteers, from 18-month-olds to senior citizens were asked to role play as if the nearby tornado left them without homes.

The Hofmann sisters and 11 other "clients" sat in on one of several briefings in the shelter.

"I know it's gonna be hot in here, and it's not home, but it's a safe place to stay," Mark Doble, regional mass care lead for the exercise, told the volunteers.

Outside the shelter, two black lab dogs, Bandit and Bear, were among the pets "rescued" from the simulated disaster. The Heartland Animal Rescue team from Brainerd worked with the Red Cross, so people in the shelter could be near their pets.

"People would die so they can stay with their animals," said Donna Wambeke, representing Heartland Animal Rescue. Offering affected families a close, safe place for their pets will help them stay calm. In real life, Wambeke's team would partner with the Department of Agriculture and nearby animal agencies to transport animals and unite lost pets with their owners.

Housing pets at a nearby facility also helps keeps children occupied during a time of crisis, said Terry Sluss, regional external relations lead for the exercise.

A view from Croatia

The Vigilant Vortex received an international audience when the National Guard welcomed representatives from Croatia.

Minnesota's National Guard has had a close partnership with Croatia for about 20 years. Troops have traveled back and forth for training, and have fought side-by-side in Afghanistan, said Ivan Juric, commander of the Command Operations Center in the Croatian Armed Forces.

The group of four officials strapped into a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter and flew out of the St. Paul airport for Camp Ripley, taking pictures of the Minnesota lakes below. Wednesday's disaster response exercise hit home with the Croatians. In May, the country was hit by heavy floods that forced thousands to leave their homes.

"It's a great opportunity for us to see how you are doing here," Juric said.

This simulated Red Cross shelter almost became a reality nine years ago when Hurricane Katrina hit ­— the facility was put on standby as an evacuation shelter for New Orleans. Disasters like Hurricane Katrina, and deadly tornadoes in Alabama and Joplin, Mo., have put emergency planning at the forefront, Younger said.

Bigger test coming

This is the second year the National Guard has hosted such an exercise, in preparation for a full-scale ground operation scheduled for September 2015. The National Guard will be responding to simulated scenarios of oil spills and collapsed structures across the state.

"What if this happens?" Younger asked the participants at the event. "What will we do?"