Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Quake exercise tests response plans in eight states

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

In the wake of a magnitude-7.7 earthquake that hit along the New Madrid Seismic Zone on Monday, first responders and other emergency personnel from eight Midwest states, including Missouri, have activated emergency operations centers and are rapidly organizing shelter for hundreds of thousands of residents affected by the disaster.

But it's only a test.

Their hard work will pay off in the way of preparedness, though, as their actions are part of an exercise organized by FEMA, the Central United States Earthquake Consortium in Memphis, Tenn., and state emergency management agencies. The exercise took three years to prepare, according to Jim Wilkinson, the consortium's executive director. This year's mock disaster is the first natural hazard to be tested -- the others have been man-made crises, such as a terrorist attack. The earthquake drill is the largest such exercise that's been conducted in the U.S.

"The value in it is it allows you to test your plans and see what needs improvement," Wilkinson said.

As a result of recent Midwest tornadoes and flooding events, four of the eight states weren't able to participate as planned. Wilkinson said their presence was still felt, however, as agencies still participating injected information into exercises that would have come from the states that didn't participate.

"From our perspective, the fact that the real world took over and caused a shift has affected how these things work," Wilkinson said. "A lot of the value comes in the work leading up to it."

Local and state emergency personnel from Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky and Indiana remained signed up for the four-day exercise, although some, like those from New Madrid County, participated during just one of the days. David McClarty, New Madrid County emergency management director, said he, several county officials and agencies put emphasis Tuesday on how they would handle mass medical care and sheltering after the earthquake. McClarty said with no hospitals in the county, providing care to the sick and injured is their biggest concern.

"Being the small rural area that we are in New Madrid County, resources are going to disappear quickly," he said. "In our area, first responders -- I would say 90 percent of them -- are volunteers."

Cape Girardeau County

In Cape Girardeau County, Richard Knaup, emergency management director, and other county staff worked through a few glitches -- instructions from headquarters in Jefferson City didn't come through on time -- and improvised, coming up with their own recovery scenarios. Knaup said they discussed taking care of themselves first following the earthquake.

"If it hits during a Monday through Friday, what is the government going to do? We're going to be victims ourselves," he said. "We're no good if we don't have our heads into it. As soon as we've done that, the No. 1 thing we have to assess is how bad the damage is and what our needs are going to


Knaup added that the discussion also focused on what personnel would do with a high number of fatalities. The bodies, he said, would have to be stored somewhere before family members could identify and bury.

"You just can't leave hundreds of bodies lying around. You can't just create an instant graveyard," he said. "Those are things you have to think about ahead of time."

Cape Girardeau County emergency officials will continue to participate in the exercise today and Thursday. Knaup said they already have a few scenarios submitted by Missouri State Emergency Management Agency, such as how they would deal with a train derailment and how during a disaster they'd begin searching for individual families.

"It's food for thought. One thing leads to another," he said.

On the final day, participants will summarize the week's activities and evaluate the procedures that were used. The same agencies are invited to be included in a two-day workshop in September, when they'll evaluate long-term recovery processes.

"With any good exercise, long-term recovery is important," Wilkinson said. "You've got the recovery piece, but the ultimate goal of an exercise is to test the plan and go back and dust them based on what you've learned."