Connecting state and local government leaders
When a disaster like a large earthquake strikes, government agencies will have to manage the public’s expectations for a quick response. And that’s not easy.
SANTA MONICA, Calif. — The following question is always an interesting one to ask a public official, especially someone with responsibilities involving life or death situations: What keeps you up at night?
That was one of the inquiries Ann Simmons of the Los Angeles Times had for Robert J. Fenton Jr., the Region 9 administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, on Friday at an event hosted by the L.A. Times at Santa Monica College’s Performing Arts Center.
Fenton was filling in for his boss, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, who, not surprisingly, had been called away to deal with the federal response for Hurricane Matthew.
Fenton’s response to Simmons’s question was an important one: He noted the significant difference between a hurricane scenario, where FEMA and other stakeholder agencies have a few days of lead time to strategically position resources and quickly respond once it’s safe to do so, and an earthquake situation, where there is no advanced notice.
In today’s era of on-demand digital conveniences, where you can easily order a pizza or book a ride with a few taps on a smartphone, Fenton said there’s “the expectation that [the emergency response] will happen immediately.” And that’s a challenging expectation for government agencies and first responders to deal with during a rapidly unfolding and regionally disruptive earthquake.
While help will be on the way from federal, state and local authorities, it won’t be immediate. Many of those impacted are going to be on their own for awhile depending on geography and localized conditions that rescue and recovery operations will face—it could be a few days, or, for those in more isolated areas, it could be weeks, Fenton said, citing portions of the Oregon coast that will be devastated in a Cascadia megathrust earthquake and tsunami scenario.
“Only about 40 percent of Americans have a plan for an [emergency] event,” Fenton told the members of the L.A.-area crowd, who live in a region at high-risk for natural disasters and major vulnerabilities when it comes to massively disruptive earthquake in Southern California, like the Big One expected to be start at the southern end of the San Andreas fault and rock the entire L.A. area. Aqueducts which carry water across the San Andreas Fault into Los Angeles, could be knocked offline in a major quake, along with surface transportation lifelines connecting Southern California to the rest of the nation.
Not enough Americans are prepared to survive on their own in such a situation. Fenton, FEMA and its emergency preparedness partner stakeholders have lot of work to do to get more people prepared. FEMA’s Ready.gov is a good start. But more needs to be done.
“It starts with individual preparedness,” Fenton said. “From there it’s getting the whole community prepared.” Both are tough challenges.
Fenton said that any event FEMA responds to involves high stakes for the agency’s public perception, which was hammered following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“We realize at FEMA, that it’s easy to go from the penthouse to the out house and back,” Fenton said, noting that with Katrina, there were failures across all levels of government, not just his agency.
While FEMA has plenty of experience dealing with hurricanes and flooding, the agency hasn’t had to deal with disaster response involving a large, regionally disruptive earthquake in an urban area in a long time.
While the 1989 Loma Prieta quake in the San Francisco Bay area, the 1994 Northridge quake in Los Angeles, and the 2001 Nisqually quake in Washington state were destructive individual events, they were comparatively minor disaster situations to respond to compared to the far larger, more destructive and disruptive seismic scenarios that loom—that includes the Big One in Southern California, the next major quake on the Hayward Fault near San Francisco and the next Cascadia megathrust earthquake in the Pacific Northwest.
While those future earthquakes will most likely strike without much warning—ShakeAlert technology under development will be able to relay an advance alert before the damaging seismic waves arrive after a quake has been detected—there’s a lot that we can do to prepare individually and more emergency management stakeholders can do to be ready.
Our current level of under preparedness is something that should keep all of us up at night.
Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.