Monday, September 12, 2005

Ford Calls For Join Federal, State, and Local Government Exercise To Prepare For And Respond To Potential Earthquake

Congressman Harold Ford (D-TN) released a letter today to Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff urging him to immediately begin the process of conducting a joint federal, state and local government exercise to help the federal government develop joint response plans in the event of a catastrophic earthquake.

Congressman Ford's letter follows:

Dear Mr. Secretary:

I am writing to urge the U.S. Department of Homeland Security immediately begin the process of conducting simulation and drills of federal, state and local officials to prepare for a potential catastrophic earthquake along the New Madrid seismic zone.

The failure of federal, state and local officials to prepare for and respond to Hurricane Katrina is well documented: hundreds of thousands stranded for days without food and water, levees breached, lack of coordination between all levels of government, questions over authority between state and federal officials, water borne disease and lack of order are just a few of the problems that occurred before and in the wake of this catastrophe. There are lessons to be learned from the failures of Hurricane Katrina to avoid a catastrophic loss of life, injuries and destruction of property that will occur if there is a major earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone.

In 1811 and 1812, the continental United States experienced one of the largest earthquakes in its history in the New Madrid seismic zone, which stretches from southern Illinois to northeastern Arkansas. The magnitude of those earthquakes resulted in large areas of land sinking into the earth, the formation of Reelfoot Lake in northwestern Tennessee and the Mississippi River changing its course.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the probability of a repeat of the 1811-1812 earthquakes (magnitude 7.5 to 8.00) in a 50 year period is 10%. The probability of a magnitude 6.0 or larger is 25% to 40%.
Under either scenario, the impact on Memphis and the mid-south region would be devastating. Unreinforced buildings and infrastructure would crumble, thousands would lose their lives or suffer injuries and there would be billions in economic damages in the region. If an earthquake occurs during the day, the damages, injuries and deaths would be most significant in vulnerable structures occupied by workers, patients, the infirmed and school children. Hospitals would be overwhelmed and much of our energy and transportation infrastructure would be damaged.

Such an event is likely to cripple the response of local and state government and their first responders and emergency personnel. Therefore, a plan must be in place that would enable the federal government to respond immediately - without the immediate consent of state and local officials.

As you know, the current National Response Plan requires the Governor, in consultation with the local governments, to determine that a disaster is beyond the resources and capability of the state and local government to respond. This strategy - if used in the event of a major earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic area - has the potential to cost lives and should be seriously reconsidered.

In July, 2004, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conducted the so-called "Hurricane Pam" exercise in which a simulation of 120 mile winds and up to 20 inches of rain struck southeast Louisiana (including New Orleans). The plan included providing shelter, removing debris, undertaking search and rescue, providing medical care and implementing contingency plans for schools. Although this exercise was completed, officials did not use it to either prepare for or respond to Hurricane Katrina. It is my understanding that FEMA does have plans to conduct a similar exercise in the New Madrid Seismic zone.

Once again, I am asking that this exercise be conducted as early as possible in Memphis, Tennessee. In addition, I would like to work with you and state and local officials to find a way to ensure that the lessons learned from this exercise are not ignored and placed upon a shelf in some bureaucracy at the cost of precious lives, injury and economic destruction.

I respectfully request the opportunity to meet with you to discuss this at your earliest convenience.


Harold Ford, Jr.