The Washington Post

Obama administration urging schools to join earthquake drills

Japanese elementary school children crouch under their desks during a powerful aftershock on April 12, 2011. The Obama administration is encouraging schools and universities to participate in an 11-state quake drill next week. (STR)

In a letter sent to educators, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged educators to join more than 1,600 schools, 70 colleges and universities and hundreds of local, state and federal government offices planning to participate in the “Great Central U.S. Shakeout,” occurring at 10:15 a.m. next Thursday, across 10 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee. The 11th state, Indiana, conducted its drill today.

The date marks the 200th anniversary of the great New Madrid earthquakes, which shook parts of the midwest back in 1811 and 1812. California regularly hosts “shakeout” rehearsals to train schoolchildren on what to do if “the big one” strikes.

“Recent events throughout the world — a powerful earthquake in Japan, the fifth largest in recorded history, as well as devastating earthquakes in New Zealand and Haiti — serve as a reminder that earthquakes can happen at any time and can have disastrous and far-reaching effects,” the secretaries wrote in their letter.

“All of our citizens, and especially our students, can play a critical role in helping our nation become well-prepared,” they wrote. “Giving our next generation of leaders the tools to help teach their friends, families, and peers how to be ready for earthquakes will help our entire country become more resilient in the face of a disaster.”

Next week’s drill precedes a long-anticipated national dress rehearsal scheduled for mid-May. The National Level Exercise (NLE) is slated to bring together federal, state and local officials aross the same states to game out the potential response to another New Madrid-style quake.

The exercises have been criticized by state and local leaders as expensive games that distract from local priorities and don’t realistically portray what could happen. But the White House, Napolitano and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate are vowing this drill will go differently.

Fugate told The Post last year that 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.”

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Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.


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