National disaster exercises, called too costly and scripted, may be scaled back

By Spencer S. Hsu
Friday, April 2, 2010

The plan was to stage the nation's first live exercise that simulates a nuclear bomb being detonated by terrorists in an American city, with 10,000 emergency responders, U.S. troops and officials playing out their roles in the heart of Las Vegas.

But the Obama administration canceled the Nevada events set for next month after Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), backed by casino and business interests, said it would frighten away tourists and "unacceptably harm" the region's battered economy.

The federal government is also considering whether to scale back next year's National Level Exercise, the annual drill that for the past decade has been a cornerstone of the nation's efforts to prepare for a catastrophic terrorist attack or natural disaster. The 2011 exercise was envisioned by states as a five-day test in the Midwest for a 7.7-magnitude earthquake, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency might instead limit the event to three days and test for a milder earthquake, state and federal officials said.

The decisions are playing into a quiet debate about the future of the large-scale national exercises. Convinced that the drills are the best way to determine whether the nation is prepared for a disaster, some emergency planners and state officials say they fear that as the federal government cuts costs, it may dumb down the tests so participants will pass them more easily. Shying away from the toughest problems, they say, risks repeating the mistakes that were made after Hurricane Katrina, when an unprepared White House and Louisiana governor clashed over who was in charge, how to allocate resources and whether to send in the military.

White House officials and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano say they are trying to improve the national exercises, not undercut them. The drills have grown into unrealistic, costly and over-scripted productions, Napolitano has said, an "elaborate game" rather than opportunities for officials to work through problems.

Since 2005, FEMA has spent $218 million on national exercises, testing scenarios that include an outbreak of the pneumonic plague, chemical attacks and dirty bombs. After this year's nuclear scenario, which was to involve a 10-kiloton bomb, next year's would be the first to posit a natural disaster instead of a terrorist attack.

The Obama White House is also revisiting the broad homeland security system that President George W. Bush established in a series of directives in 2003, seeking to clear up confusion about who is in charge of managing the nation's preparedness and how to track progress.

That review, however, has created wide uncertainty about the administration's plans within the ranks at FEMA, the Pentagon and state emergency agencies, several officials said.

"They're wondering: What is the outcome of the review?" said Daniel J. Kaniewski, deputy director of George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute and a White House homeland security official from 2005 to 2008. "Will they be changing or doing an about-face on exercises? . . . Nobody seems to know."

Some emergency planners at the state level and across federal agencies, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of antagonizing senior officials, said they are concerned that the White House might be easing off the effort.

"The fact that the central United States could face a catastrophic earthquake soon is scary enough, but the fact that FEMA and DHS appear overwhelmed by even doing an exercise on this scenario is very disturbing," said a federal official who has worked on the 2011 effort.

"The effort is regressing, not progressing," said another U.S. official familiar with homeland defense planning, saying some emergency managers expect that the White House could decide to make the exercises simpler, smaller and less frequent.

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