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FEMA won't be first responder
in large quake

By James Lanaras, Bay City News Service

April 16, 2006

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was criticized for its response to Hurricane Katrina but it will be the California Office of Emergency Services that will come to the immediate rescue in the event of another 1906-like earthquake in the Bay Area.

Local and county fire, police and emergency medical providers will be the first "boots on the ground" responders in the event of that catastrophe, FEMA and OES officials say.

FEMA will become involved only if its assistance is requested, said Jeff Lusk, earthquake program manager of FEMA's 2,500-employee Region IX in Oakland. He added that the public's perception of FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina "is not grounded in reality.

"The California Office of Emergency Services is the lead agency here. We coordinate the federal response. We don't move without the state or local officials telling us," Lusk said.

"Hurricanes and earthquakes are very different. Earthquakes cause very different damage. Some areas will survive. There was no public infrastructure left in New Orleans. There will be no wholesale emptying like there was in New Orleans," Lusk said.

Tom Kell, a FEMA disaster assistance specialist, said, "Hurricane Katrina was unprecedented. We were strained to the max." That hurricane was the first time FEMA exercised its chain of command under a national response plan, Kell said.

It's estimated another 1906-like quake in the Bay Area will cause 14,000 injuries and between 2,000 and 5,000 deaths, Lusk said.

It would tax responders at local, county and state levels, he said.

"I don't think any government agency can prepare to save everyone from a catastrophic event," said Sonoma County's Emergency Services coordinator Sandy Covall-Alves. "California has a very strong mutual aid system."

FEMA will provide financial support and reimbursement while the state OES will restore operations, Covall-Alves said.

California OES spokesman Greg Renick said cities and counties in the quake area will respond first, then counties in other states outside the mutual aid system will respond and, finally, in a significant emergency, FEMA would be contacted. In the event of another earthquake similar to the one in 1906, however, that contact would likely be immediate given FEMA Region IX's proximity to such an earthquake.

"One of the keys is to anticipate the need for resources at all levels of government early. We're in good shape. We have a system in place," Renick said.

Lusk said FEMA will be ready to dispatch urban search and rescue teams and medical assistance teams from Dallas, Seattle, Denver and other regional offices.

In March, FEMA's Region IX Acting Director Karen Ames reiterated the need for the public to prepare for a major earthquake.

"It is important that people who live in this region be aware that a major earthquake can occur at any moment-day or night-and be prepared for it when it does. Unlike hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes occur without warning-and once they do, it's too late to prepare for them. The time to get ready is now," Ames said.

FEMA released a list of 16 steps Bay Area residents can take to prepare for a major quake. Creating a personal or family earthquake plan and practicing it tops the list. Identify things that you could not forgo for 72 hours or more and assemble a disaster supplies kit containing those items, FEMA advised.

The former director of FEMA between 1993 and 2001, James Lee Witt, said another large magnitude quake like the one in 1906 could cause $400 billion in damage.

Now a national co-chair of the coalition ProtectingAmerica.org, Witt said California lawmakers took decisive action when they created the California Earthquake Authority after the private insurance market "severely contracted" following the Northridge earthquake in 1994 that caused $16.6 billion in claims.

That amount was more than the total earthquake premiums insurers collected over the previous 30 years, Witt said.

ProtectingAmerica.org is calling for a more integrated comprehensive solution that includes strengthening first responder resources and building codes, consumer education, and creating a financial backstop through legislation including House Resolution 4366.

"All disasters are local and extremely personal. Every disaster is different. There's no step-by-step plan. It's based on what is still functioning," FEMA's Lusk said.

But he said California has the political and economic advantage of an excellent mutual aid system.

"California is cursed with the risk of an earthquake and the blessing of being prepared for one," Lusk said.

Copyright © 2006 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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