The Sad State of Disaster Planning

A short time ago I penned a screed/rant on “Why can’t people just prepare?” And with some back and forth, mainly with friends via email, I don’t know the answer to that question. The overriding assumption is “the federal .gov will take care of everything.” Even for stuff that is clearly local government. People just don’t want to think about what might happen. It’s uncomfortable. Even if taking a few, simple actions could make their chances of survival much higher. If they ignore it, it will go away, or it will never happen.

So let’s back up a couple of years. There was finally a relatively easy to read article on the Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ), which was published by The New Yorker of all places, and what will happen if when it releases a major earthquake. The Really Big One: An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when. One friend used the word “terrifying” to describe the scenario. Think The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011. Like that. Except Japan has some systems and defenses in place. We have none.

The CSZ is not the San Andreas fault. It is an order of magnitude worse. San Andreas might someday release a quake in the 8.2 range. CSZ will be 8.7 to 9.2 on the Richter Scale, which is logarithmic. So the San Andreas has about 6 percent of the potential destructive power. The CSZ releases those quakes on regular basis. (Regular in geologic times, of approximately every 241 years. The last one was over 300 years ago.)

In the Pacific Northwest, the area of impact will cover* some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people. When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America. Roughly three thousand people died in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. Almost two thousand died in Hurricane Katrina. Almost three hundred died in Hurricane Sandy. FEMA projects that nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. Another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, and the agency expects that it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million.

Now while the Powers that Wanna Be don’t read scientific journals, they do read things like The New Yorker. That article came out in 2015. In 2016 there was a regional FEMA exercise, Cascadia Rising. You can find the After Action Report at this link. It’s a 26 page PDF, but that said, it is remarkably readable and forthright for a document produced by a bureacracy. The only thing that is truly amazing is that they actually talk about what went wrong. The exercise included things like a loss of electric utilities and a loss of communications infrastructure, but even when that wasn’t an issue, communications still broke down. They even make mention of how some egos got in the way when multiple agencies needed to coordinate. Anyway, the whole report gave me some hope that the .gov may be learning. But I think, overall, that is a false hope.

FEMA produced a new strategy document in 2018. I suppose it was intended to incorporate the “lessons learned” from Cascadia Rising. It is, however, more in line with what I have come to know, but not love, about reports and strategy documents, produced by and for bureaucrats. And I’m not just talking about the excessive use of acronyms and boilerplate, but about the rose-colored-glasses view of reality. That said, they do recognize that they have problems, and admit that those problems should be fixed. And they recognize that the average American needs to take some action ahead of time. It isn’t clear how they intend to make that happen.

But what really has me disgusted with the state of FEMA, is 2019’s Shaken Fury exercise. What follows is the first paragraph of the announcement.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will conduct Shaken Fury 2019 (SF 19) involving a series of tabletop, functional and full-scale exercises in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Northern Command, state and local governments, and the private sector. The exercise will take place from May 29th through June 7th and utilize a 7.7 magnitude earthquake scenario along the southwest segment of the New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ) near Memphis, Tennessee to incorporate response and recovery missions.

I can’t find an After Action Report on SF 19, but there are plenty of PR documents released to the press, mostly detailing how the Science and Technology arm of FEMA has some Wiz-bang, neato technology which will just save the day. (For some reason I hear the Underdog theme song.) As long as communication infrastructure isn’t destroyed. And I know S&T is planning some things to address emergency infrastructure. (Like generator-run portable cell towers.) Most of what I’ve seen is “Look what a great job we’re doing,” kind of thing. Must be time to justify next-year’s budget. Or somthing.

I am still wading through planning documents from the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, and NIST. They have some help from various universities situated in flood plans, hurricane country, et cetera, but so far they don’t seem to have done much besides hold planning meetings. That may not be fair; as I said, I am still wading thru documents. It isn’t a process that will be quick, since aside from finding the time, I have to want to beat my head against the brick wall that is bureaucratic-speak. My only comment at this juncture is that it seems they’ve bitten off more than they will be able to chew. For example, consider the National Critical Functions Set. Maybe they need to include a time-frame. Personally, I see critical functions as, clean drinking water, food, search/rescue, medical care. (Maintaining my internet connection is farther down on my list.)

And a side note: I’m almost convinced that Brock Long, FEMA administrator, is planning to run for office someday. The 2018 strategic plan I referenced above, (it’s a 38 page PDF) is filled with quotes from Long and a couple of photos that look like campaign literature. Overall, the plan comes across like the glossy bits at the front of corporate annual report. Shiny marketing stuff, which is used to distract people from the fine print written by the accountants toward the back.

4 thoughts on “The Sad State of Disaster Planning

  1. A real life study: 2007 Oklahoma ice Storm. Imagine that on a population center.
    Yes, people generally are woefully under prepared.


  2. Pingback: In The Mailbox: 10.09.19 : The Other McCain

  3. We had an ice storm when I was a kid, in December of 1973. It hit without warning–spring flowers were blooming in our window boxes in the unseasonable warmth the day before. My father–a prepper before there was a word for it–was ready before the sun came up. He heard ice tinkling on the roof before he got up and knew that something was wrong. We had a fireplace, plenty of wood, candles and a gas stove, so we did fine. We rescued a neighbor who had just moved in who was trying to open his one can of soup with a (non-operational) electric can opener. I have never been without a Plan B ever since.

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