In the Future: Interagency Federal Response

In the Future: Interagency Federal Response

Emergency response operations during the Whittier earthquake were handled, as usual, by state and local agencies. Federal agencies did their jobs during the recovery phase, funneling grants and reconstructing roads.

But the next time a powerful earthquake strikes a highly populated area, watch for federal workers to take on a new, more active role during the disaster. Last June, 25 agencies agreed to assist state and local life-saving efforts during extremely devestating earthquakes. They’d operate under a program called the “Plan for Federal Response to a Catastrophic Earthquake.”

There hasn’t been an earthquake since the plan’s inception that fits its rather loose definition of catastrophic. An earthquake of that genre would exceed the capabilities of state and local agencies, fall somewhere between 7.5 to 8.5 on the Richter scale, and strike a heavily populated area.

“We can’t define it too well in advance, but we’ll know it when we see it,” says Laurence W. Zensinger, chief of hazard mitigation for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Assistance Programs.

The program draws together federal agencies ranging from the Agriculture Department to the Postal Service. Some agencies are assigned different tasks than those they’d traditionally perform months after an earthquake. While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would assess dam structures after an earthquake, during the disaster its personnel might clear debris. Other agencies, such as the National Communications System, are involved in earthquake assistance for the first time.

According to the plan, state and local governments will still be in charge of emergency response. Federal assistance will be provided based on priorities and requirements that are identified by each state.

Still, the duties and responsibilities of each agency for a variety of emergency situations are spelled out in the federal plan. For firefighting operations, for instance, the Agriculture Department’s U.S. Forest Service would act as the primary federal agency. Among its tasks would be suppressing wildfires on National Forest System lands; providing logistical support for mobilizing national firefighting resources; and coordinating requests for assistance in fighting structural or industrial fires.

Supporting agencies are assigned tasks in their areas of expertise. The Environmental Protection Agency would advise in haz-mat incidents, for example, and the Commerce Department would provide weather forecast information as needed.

In January, federal workers participated in a southern California earthquake drill sponsored by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. The two-day drill simulated emergency response to an earthquake in San Bernardino measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale and generating 50,000 casualties.

On the whole, the drill was successful, says Zensinger, with federal agencies receiving as many requests for help as were expected. But some federal workers were frustrated that not a lot of the requests were made until the second day, after state agencies realized their resources were dwindling. During an actual emergency, the director contends, responses would have been performed simultaneously.

Zensinger says it’s too early to determine what impact the January drill will have on the federal plan, but he expects that there’d be only minor adjustments rather than major changes. A joint emergency exercise coordinated by FEMA and the state of California is under consideration for next year.

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