Successful disaster preparedness is directly related to the quality of planning, training provided, and the testing that occurs before a disaster strikes. The National Level Exercise 2011 (NLE 11), which will simulate a disastrous earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ), is an opportunity for the private sector and multiple government jurisdictions to evaluate response and recovery capabilities for a catastrophic event. Located in the center of the United States, NMSZ encompasses parts of an eight-state region including Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee.
Japan has been widely recognized as having the most robust disaster planning of any country in the world, particularly when it comes to earthquakes. In 2010, about 670,000 residents participated in preparedness drills as part of Japan’s Disaster Preparedness Day; held annually since the damaging earthquake of 1923, when tremors measuring 7.9 left Tokyo and its suburbs in ruins and killed 140,000 people, according to the Yomiuri Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper.
Time magazine describes just how devoted Japanese leadership and the general public are to disaster preparedness in an online article, How Japan Became a Leader in Disaster Preparation. The general public, including school-aged children, participate in annual mandatory evacuation drills. Japanese leadership has emphasized the importance of mutual aid. Japan’s Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, has stated, “I would like to ensure that the government will prepare itself for disaster, together with the people, so that it can confi dently say that ‘providing is preventing.’ ” Hundreds of earthquake and tsunami shelters have also been built along the east coast of Japan to protect its people. CBS News describes Japan’s Disaster Preparedness Day as a collaborative endeavor, including the military, local police, firefighters, and the United States Navy; that incorporates mandatory evacuation drills, early warning and communication system testing, private sector collaboration, and emergency response activities.
Despite these preparedness drills, the 9.0 magnitude quake that hit northern Japan on March 11, 2011, resulted in widespread destruction and loss of life. As of April 4, the Japanese government reported an estimated 135,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged, the number of deaths is 12,087, the number of the injured is 2,876, and the number of missing is 15,552. The number of those evacuated is approximately 206,400. CNN has reported that approximately 6 million households in Japan (more than 10 percent) were without electricity. Multiple media outlets have stated that homes were washed away after a dam failure in Fukushima Prefecture, located on the island of Honshu. Fukushima Prefecture borders the hard-hit Miyagi Prefecture to the South and is also home to the damaged nuclear reactor. The reactor has now leaked radioactive material into the surrounding atmosphere, and radioactive water has filled nearby tunnels, which has spilled into the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese government estimates recovery costs could reach as much as $310 billion.
Japan’s experience is an important lesson for the United States because the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has warned that an earthquake in NMSZ could result in “the highest economic losses due to a natural disaster in the United States.” FEMA further estimates “widespread and catastrophic” destruction could occur across the eight states that make up the NMSZ. A 7.7 magnitude quake or greater would cause damage to tens of thousands of structures affecting critical infrastructure. According to a FEMA report, Impact of Earthquakes in Central USA, nearly 715,000 buildings could be damaged, 2.6 million households could lose electric power, and casualties could climb to almost 86,000 with 3,500 fatalities. The direct economic losses are predicted to be a staggering $300 billion across the eight-state region.
To prepare for a national catastrophic event of this magnitude, the U.S. government has several overarching objectives for NLE 2011. The exercise is meant to test the ability of the United States to:
- Offer mass care services (shelter and food) for the affected general populations.
- Expand health-care resources to provide medical personnel and logistics.
- Implement recovery processes after a catastrophic earthquake, including establishing recovery priorities, assessing the economic impact, and coordinating and implementing recovery and relief plans.
- Maintain continuous information sharing for the duration of the response operation.
- Implement an effective national media strategy in response to a catastrophic earthquake.
- Ensure that affected populations are safely sheltered-in-place and/or evacuated to a safe refuge area, and are effectively and safely returned following the event.
The disaster in Japan serves as a harsh reminder of the importance of disaster planning and preparedness. In The Japan Earthquake & Tsunami and What They Mean for the U.S., a document prepared for FEMA after Japan’s recent earthquake, experts acknowledged that the earthquake damage in Japan was relatively contained in part because the epicenter of the quake was 62 miles from shore, but mostly because Japanese building codes are so restrictive. Although older wood residential buildings suffered the most structural damage resulting in collapse, many of the buildings in Japan remained intact. According to the same FEMA report, nonstructural damage has caused greater dollar losses than actual structural damage.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates there is a 25 to 40 percent chance, in a 50-year time span, of a magnitude 6.0 or greater earthquake in the NMSZ. Private sector organizations falling within the NMSZ in the United States do not have the earthquake design standards that are as strict as those in Japan, which makes coordinated preparedness testing even more important. NLE 11 provides a perfect means for the private sector to test disaster recovery and business continuity plans, in addition to providing subject matter expertise in a coordinated response effort with multiple government jurisdictions.