Mega-disasters: "Are we as prepared as we can or should be, the answer to that is, no." What's FEMA's response?

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03/18/2011

As the crisis in Japan continues to worsen, there has been speculation about how prepared the United States is to deal with such a large-scale disaster. Yesterday, retired Department of Homeland Security inspector general Richard Skinner told a Senate hearing that the U.S. is not adequately prepared for such a "mega-disaster," according to this report.

"If you ask me if we as a nation are better prepared than we were 40 years ago, five years ago, the answer is yes," he said, "But if you ask me are we as prepared as we can or should be, the answer to that is, no, we're not."

Skinner went on to say that the events in Japan should serve as a reminder to the U.S. about the importance of catastrophic preparedness and it's not a matter of if, but more a matter of when. Skinner, in his testimony, was very critical of the general state of preparedness in this country, saying the U.S. should be "much better prepared than we are today" after events like Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 attacks.

I then read this transcript of testimony from Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In it, he discussed how FEMA was continuing to prepare for catastrophic disasters. The key issues, he said, were overall planning, coordination and support, emergency communications, logistics, evacuations, housing, disaster workforce, mission assignments, acquisition management and mitigation.

Among many things, Fugate discussed a new office, called the Office of Response and Recovery, which has a planning division dedicated to national, regional and chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive catastrophic planning efforts. He also mentioned how FEMA established a National Credentialing Program in 2010 to coordinate activities, incorporate policies, and recommend guidance and standards for credentialing all FEMA personnel who require access to disaster areas or FEMA facilities during an emergency. That's also important to make sure everyone is properly trained and on the same page during an emergency.

In lieu of the Japanese situation and the fact that there are major fault lines throughout the U.S., Fugate also discussed the nation's earthquake preparedness:

As another example of our federal response efforts, national catastrophic planning also includes developing a Federal Interagency Operations Plan for Earthquakes. This plan is oriented toward response and short-term recovery, and will address federal capabilities supporting response efforts to a catastrophic earthquake occurring anywhere in the United States and its territories. FEMA's regions are also partnering directly with their states on joint planning efforts with a focus on specific fault zones or other hazards present within those regions.

Of course, all these elements are important, but the one that seems so critical (and solvable) is the issue of communication. The biggest lesson from all those catastrophes has been the breakdown in communication. Police, fire, federal and local entities, and first responders all know that the first thing to break down during this kind of catastrophe is the communication channels. But, ensuring that all entities have a means of communication has been a huge challenge and I still hear from many agencies that they're not satisfied with the solutions in place.

Also in his testimony, Fugate mentioned the importance of private sector collaboration:

The private sector is a key partner in our catastrophic planning efforts. Various companies and organizations have worked with FEMA at the state and regional levels to collaborate and help develop catastrophic plans. Key corporate and academic experts have provided essential resources and input, and we have established relationships to facilitate response and recovery in coordination with these entities.

How should FEMA be reaching out to those of you in the private sector to prepare for all levels of emergencies?