Athletes go through training camp, preseason games, and preparations for postseason or playoffs with well-crafted plans and plays they’ve practiced over and over again. Similarly, we create our own plans for disaster response, recovery, and preparedness that cover all aspects of our operations and include variables that may seem improbable or even impossible. To practice and test them, we participate in exercises—scenarios designed to recreate realistic potential events that include not only our own personnel, but our federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial partners as well.
A great example of this, recently featured in two publications – The New Yorker in July and Politico in August – is the exercise FEMA developed for the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, which will happen in coordination with many of our partners in 2016.
Working with the states that reside in the Cascadia Subduction Zone, FEMA developed an exercise that simulates all the potential impacts of this type of earthquake. Operating during and after a large event like this takes a lot of coordination on all levels. Washington, Oregon and California, the National Guard, the Department of Defense Northern Command (NORTHCOM), other federal partners, and FEMA Regions 9 and 10 have worked to put this all together. Although coordinating all aspects of a response across so many organizations can be difficult, it helps us get the job done.
However, creating a plan isn’t enough. According to FEMA Region 10 Administrator Ken Murphy, “we plan to coordinate a response to an earthquake of this size.” Practicing that coordination comes through different types of exercises we do.
Exercises often have many participants and some may need a lot of planning ahead of time. The exercise that we designed to test the Cascadia Subduction Plan and makes up part of a larger exercise created by the Department of Defense scheduled for next year, is a great example of this. The scenario: a magnitude 9.0 earthquake strikes off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, affecting the Cascadia Subduction Zone—which covers portions of Washington, Oregon, and California—and the tsunami that follows. Participating in an exercise like this offers us and our partners an opportunity for us to think on our feet and find creative solutions to problems; whether those problems are anticipated or not.
There’s a good reason a Cascadia quake scenario created so much buzz. It could cause quite a mess in the Pacific Northwest. Think about it, an actual event that mirrors this particular scenario includes a high magnitude earthquake, followed immediately by a tsunami. Earthquakes this large can last anywhere from four to six minutes. Even with recent advances in earthquake early warning technology we don't know how long an earthquake can last or even exactly where the epicenter would be, which complicates exercise design and planning efforts.
In planning for a response and recovery effort, we consider all of the pieces and look at the potential hazards, risks, and damage across the region. While the earthquake scenario used for the exercise is something that could happen, it’s important to remember that it isn’t exactly what will happen. There’s no exact way to predict an earthquake and there is no specific season for earthquakes.
We do these exercises and we plan for these kinds of events because as the Administrator said to Danny Vinik of Politico, "you either build for the big events or you're going to fail."
- Region 10 Administrator Murphy’s Thoughts on Cascadia
- “The Really Big One” from The New Yorker
- “How to Stay Safe When the Big One Comes” from The New Yorker
- Politico’s Debrief with Administrator Fugate (August 2015)