Amid host of concerns, US scales back national disaster exercises

Questions swirl about preparedness

Senate majority leader Harry Reid said the exercises could “unacceptably harm’’ the region’s battered economy. Senate majority leader Harry Reid said the exercises could “unacceptably harm’’ the region’s battered economy.
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post / April 4, 2010

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WASHINGTON — 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, 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 Reid, Democrat of Nevada, 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 may 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 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 overscripted 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 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 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 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 [the Department of Homeland Security] 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 US official familiar with homeland defense planning, saying some emergency managers expect that the White House may decide to make the exercises simpler, smaller and less frequent.

FEMA administrator 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.

While the administration is “in lockstep in our continued commitment’’ to NLEs, he said, “our exercises have to go beyond the large-scale, preplanned 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, then the governor of Arizona.