Sunday, March 13, 2011

Is D.C. Prepared for a Tsunami?

After 9/11, our disaster preparedness is better -- but far from ideal.

By Marc Ambinder
Friday, March 11, 2011 | 11:50 a.m.

The administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Craig Fugate, was woken up early Friday morning by a watch officer from FEMA's National Response Coordination Center and given news about the massive earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Japan.

From FEMA's perspective, the action checklist here is relatively routine: provide support to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's tsunami warning groups, activate the Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center in Virginia, and provide warnings to states and localities over the National Warning System, a 24/7 secure open line to emergency management centers across the country.

Fugate's aides also have a checklist of concerns for coastal areas: What's the likelihood that drinking water will be contaminated? Should FEMA's pre-positioned resources be deployed? Should FEMA initiate its liaison with major private corporations, like Target and Walmart, which are well-equipped to serve as distribution centers?

On Friday, Fugate also put an Urban Search and Rescue Team on stand-by, anticipating a request from Japan. Should President Obama make a formal request, FEMA will coordinate the emergency support functions of more than a dozen government agencies, which would probably report to the State Department's Agency for International Development.

By 8:00 a.m., before most of Washington got to work, Fugate had recorded a video for FEMA's website. He had tweeted important links.

All this, for a disaster a half a world away from the continental United States.

Earlier this week, I asked Fugate whether he was confident that the United States could absorb a catastrophic event that affected the National Capital Region -- specifically, in reference to the near-flood level of the Potomac this week. Are we doing what we need to do? Are we better prepared than we have been in the past?

"The answer is yes... but it's a qualified yes," he said. On the plus side, the Washington area has an unusually strong record of coordinated response in emergencies, and probably performs more exercises than any other region in the country. On 9/11, he said, as chaotic as the day was, the actual response was solid: the Fire Departments sharing resources, the National Guard being deployed efficiently, hospitals absorbing the wounded.

"In terms of a response, that's about as good as it can get. There were lessons learned, but the system didn't fail. Now you've got something more robust than you had [when an] Air Florida [plane crashed into the Potomac in 1982], and something much more robust than on 9/11. But that doesn't mean it isn't going to be any less catastrophic. The real question is, is the response more coordinated?"

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments holds dozens of exercises each year and hundreds of meetings. It has its own repository of disaster supplies at high-ground secure sites across the region, including three 18-wheelers with hundreds of interoperable radios. At an undisclosed location in Prince George's County, first responders from all jurisdictions practice evacuating Metro trains in the event of biological, chemical, and radiological attacks. The National Park Service Police and the D.C. Police Department practice evacuating downtown Washington once a year -- when people pack the mall for the 4th of July and then, when the fireworks are over, try to leave all at once. It's roughly the same number who crowd into downtown D.C. during work days.

There'd no doubt be problems getting to high ground. Many major Northern Virginia roads can be used for "counter-flow" -- that is, easily used for one-way traffic out. But Maryland's highways don't have gates or HOV lanes, which would make evacuation to the north harder.

Complicating a mass evacuation would be various emergency contingency plans put in place by the federal government. The good news: Most agencies have good, well-rehearsed plans. The bad news: They tend to run into conflict with one another.

According to an internal but unclassified "Federal Concept Plan," ahead of an exercise called FORWARD RESOLVE in 2010, "there was no established mechanism to coordinate and de‐conflict the planning assumptions and potential protective actions that federal authorities might implement following a catastrophic emergency."

This month, FEMA plans a "National Level Exercise" involving a major earthquake along the New Madrid fault line, which snakes through the Midwestern part of the country.

Now, after attending to potential damage in the homeland from the displaced water, FEMA will turn its attention to Japan's response. Did cellular networks prove resilient? Did the quake knock out back-up power systems? How vulnerable were Japan's nuclear reactors?

Fugate told me earlier this week that state and local responders would always be the tip of the spear for disasters like this one -- and that Americans should realistically prepare (without panicking) for a spell of time to survive without immediate government assistance.

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