New Zealand earthquake: Q&A with Timothy W. Manning of FEMA

The search for survivors is on as buildings crumble after 6.3-magnitude earthquake hits at the height of a busy workday in Christchurch.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 7:17 PM

The White House is deploying disaster-response and urban-search-and-rescue teams to New Zealand following a 6.3-magnitude earthquake that rocked the country Tuesday.

They will be greeted there by Timothy W. Manning, a deputy administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency who is in the country assisting with response efforts and is particularly qualified to do so.

Talk about being in the right place at the right time: Manning is a trained geologist, paramedic and firefighter - the perfect combination for earthquake response. He is in New Zealand as part of a U.S. delegation visiting for trade and global security talks and for a review of the country's cleanup efforts after a 7.0-magnitude quake in September.

Workers in Christchurch, New Zealand's second-largest city, continued Wednesday to sift through rubble for survivors, but officials said hopes had dimmed that those buried would be found alive. The official death toll remained at 75, with scores missing.

Manning spoke Wednesday morning from Christchurch and said that he was about to board an airplane when the quake struck. The transcript of our telephone conversation follows, edited for space:

What did you do right after the quake?

Manning: A number of New Zealand police officers asked for any doctors, paramedics or people who could assist. We joined up with a group of construction workers [at the airport] and commandeered a shuttle bus and worked our way into town and went block by block, searching for survivors. . . . Now I'm working in support - as FEMA always is, in international assistance situations - in support of USAID and the State Department. I'm at the city operation center to assist and provide any assistance to Americans who may need help.

In that block-by-block search, did you guys find anyone needing assistance?

We did not find anybody that needed rescue. Some of our people peeled off and worked with other responders who were rescuing people in some of the buildings we came across.

Are there any reports of Americans missing or injured?

It's an extremely dynamic situation, and rescue is still ongoing. We, with the embassy team, are visiting hospitals and triage centers. I don't have any information on any U.S. citizens who've been injured, but the team is working diligently to identify anyone who's missing or may need assistance.

The earthquake struck at noon, at lunch, which is one of the reasons this one will lead to tragedy compared to the other quake. People didn't have their cell phone chargers with them, so phones are dead. They didn't have their phones working and they didn't have travel documents with them, so that makes it more difficult.

Is the country well-equipped enough to deal with these types of events? How does its infrastructure measure up to what we have?

As was obvious from how far they had come in recovery from the last earthquake and what I've seen in the last 24 hours, they are very good here. New Zealanders have a strong sense of community and are very well-prepared and have come together very well.

You studied earthquake science, correct?

My degree is in geology. I was a professional geologist before I got into emergency management.

Had you ever been through a quake before?

Very small earthquakes, but never anything like this. I certainly have studied them and have responded to disasters for a number of years, but it's the first large earthquake I've been in the midst of.

Since FEMA is all about preventing disasters and I'm speaking to you during this unfortunate occurrence, I've got to ask you: What should people do to prevent potential quake damage to their home or office?

The experience you see here shows how importance preparedness is. Doing things like reinforcing your home if you live in un-reinforced masonry. Retrofitting vulnerable buildings and even things like securing bookshelves to walls. Planning to be able to reunify with your family.

When a disaster like this strikes in the middle of the day, too often you're separated. Parents may be at work while the children are at school, cell networks may be down, and reunification can be difficult and a lengthy process. Having a plan for how to reunite with your family is critical. Always knowing or having an idea of where to go is critical when something like this happens.

How much longer will you be there?

I was supposed to leave yesterday but skipped the evacuation flights in order to stay here. I'm here for as long as I'm needed.

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