Japan Catastrophe Should Prompt U.S. to Re-Examine Policies, Procedures

The United States’ complex government system makes responding to large-scale disasters arduous.

by / March 16, 2011
An aerial view of the damage in Sendai, Japan, from the magnitude 8.9 earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy. U.S. Navy

Every large-scale disaster can cause a re-examination of laws, policies and procedures. The catastrophe in Japan is no exception. The United States’ complex system of state and local government makes responding to large-scale disasters problematic. Therefore, it is appropriate that governments at all levels re-examine how they intend to respond to a catastrophic disaster like the one that Japan is experiencing.

The following are policy issues that need to be addressed here in the United States.

Nuclear energy has been embraced as one solution to the energy needs of the nation. Now with the Japan quake, the “nuclear option” will gain even more scrutiny when it comes to locating these facilities in seismically active areas of the nation. This is not just a California issue because many potential nuclear plant sites are located in other areas of the country that are at risk of earthquakes. This will directly apply to the South and Midwest regions of the country where the New Madrid earthquake hazard is now well known and other regions of the nation that also have seismic risks.

Earthquake detection and warning systems — like Japan’s that worked effectively during its latest quake — are still just on the drawing boards in California. The Cascadia Subduction Zone that runs from British Columbia to off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California is a perfect candidate for such a warning system. Because of its extreme length there could be minutes of warning for portions of the quake zone.

The existing tsunami warning system is not currently effective for a quake that is this close to the coast. Having an earthquake detection and warning system tied into the existing tsunami siren warning system would provide a dramatic improvement in warning capabilities and give people a head start on escaping any tsunami generated by a subduction zone quake.

We can expect even more attention to be paid to catastrophic-sized disasters like we saw in Japan. FEMA, under the leadership of Administrator Craig Fugate, has embarked on a policy of planning for what is being called the “maximum of maximums.” These are not your average-sized disasters that are routinely found in the United States. These are the mega-events like category five hurricanes, the subduction quake described earlier or surface earthquake faults occurring in major metropolitan areas. One such event would be an earthquake on the New Madrid Seismic Zone located in the central Midwest. The next U.S. Department of Homeland Security National Level Exercise (NLE) will be held in a few months and will use a catastrophic New Madrid earthquake scenario. State and local jurisdictions will be participating and there will be intense scrutiny on how FEMA performs and what lessons are learned from conducting such an exercise.

The Japan quake also calls into question the adequacy of the message that people and businesses should be prepared to be self-sufficient for 72 hours following an emergency. This is the common message used today by FEMA, the Red Cross and other disaster response agencies. Following Hurricane Katrina, a number of local emergency management agencies started telling their citizens to become prepared for a week due to the potential size of the disasters they face. Seventy-two hour preparedness is not adequate for a catastrophic disaster envisioned by a maximum of maximums event. If we are really going to become serious about being prepared for disasters, governments at all levels must be honest with their communities and tell them that they will need to be prepared for more than 72 hours. A national resolution of what the new standard will be needs to be established via a rigorous debate with FEMA and the American Red Cross leading the discussion with input from state and local governments.

Lastly, every government official needs to ask their emergency management staffs how resources will be allocated across jurisdictional boundaries when there is a regional disaster that is not specific to a single community. One of the strengths of the American system is elected officials being accountable to their individual constituencies. However, this same system has not led governments and their first responder agencies to form the types of alliances and decision-making methodologies that support regional decision-making.

Elected officials should not be swayed by statements of mutual aid agreements being in place and a tradition of cooperation between disciplines like fire and police. Instead, they should ask, “When city A has a need and city B has a need, how is the decision made concerning the allocation of resources when just one city’s need can be satisfied?” The plan or procedure that jurisdictions have signed should include information that will guide the decision-making process. In most cases you will not find such a document. It is a huge hole in our national response system that is not being addressed due to years of competition between governments and disciplines, and a lack of interjurisdictional cooperation.

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

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