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

By Spencer S. Hsu
Friday, April 2, 2010; A01

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.

FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate acknowledged that the administration has concerns about whether the large-scale exercises need revamping, but said officials are committed to other kinds of drills, particularly those conducted without notice.

Although the administration is "in lock-step in our continued commitment" to NLEs, he said, "our exercises have to go beyond the large-scale, pre-planned events. We have to do a lot more exercises on a day-to-day basis."

National-level exercises date to 2000, when Congress mandated them to test top government officials' responses to a nuclear, biological or chemical attack. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Bush made the national live exercises the centerpiece of a series of "full-scale, full-system tests" involving 15 scenarios and a constellation of federal, military, state and local agencies.

After Hurricane Katrina, Bush overhauled the program again, increasing the number of exercises, adding a focus on natural disasters and demanding more rigorous follow-up.

Still, the program drew complaints of "exercise fatigue" from many state officials, including Napolitano, who was then the governor of Arizona. In a November 2007 letter to her DHS predecessor, Michael Chertoff, Napolitano said planning for that year's exercise -- which reportedly cost $20 million and involved 26,000 participants -- was "too expensive, too protracted and too removed from a real-world scenario."

Once in her current office, Napolitano talked about streamlining the drills and scaling them back to restore surprise. "When you have months to prepare for an exercise . . . a large part of the exercise's value is lost," she wrote.

In December, DHS abruptly shelved plans to conduct the $15 million exercise in Nevada, a simulated attack that initially had been set on the Las Vegas Strip.

In November, Reid, who faces a tough reelection bid, cited unanimous opposition from the Nevada Chamber of Commerce and lodging and tourism groups.

Two weeks later, FEMA announced it would scale back the exercise to focus on what could be done without state and local participation, settling on a largely Washington-based series of table-top drills and contingency operations. Reid thanked Napolitano for deciding "to cancel this exercise so quickly."

If that decision was related to specific economic and political sensitivities, the debate about next year's earthquake scenario has raised broader questions.

A $30 million planning effort led by FEMA has been based on a disaster that struck the country in the early 1800s: multiple quakes exceeding magnitudes of 7.0 that in rapid succession hit the so-called New Madrid Seismic Zone -- a 200,000-square-mile area over eight states centered around Memphis and St. Louis. A FEMA-funded study predicted that a similar event today would kill or injure 86,000 people, cause $300 billion in losses and cut the nation's "aorta" -- the bridges and pipelines that cross the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

Kentucky Emergency Manager John W. Heltzel, who is chairman of the eight-state Central United States Earthquake Consortium, objected to FEMA proposals to scale back the exercise, writing to Fugate last month that states "unanimously agreed that we will proceed" with the five-day event.

State officials said the nation's response system must be tested to the breaking point.

"We need to be assured there's a . . . process whereby federal resources get allocated," Tennessee Emergency Management Agency Director James Bassham said in a recent planning conference. "We would hope it's a more businesslike approach than eight governors calling the president."

The Pentagon, which is required to test its disaster response in large exercises, is supporting the states, according to military officials and other emergency planners. When the Las Vegas drill was canceled, the military's Northern Command was forced to look elsewhere to meet its 2010 requirement, which envisioned thousands of troops responding to a terrorist attack.

Timothy Gress, managing director of the University of Illinois' Mid-America Earthquake Center, which produced the FEMA study, said that the passage of time has dimmed Washington's sense of urgency.

"When the project was initiated, Katrina was still very much fresh in their minds," he said. Now, after four years of work planning the earthquake drill, he said, "why wouldn't you want to exercise that plan?"

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