Earthquake!

By MIKE MILIARD  |  February 27, 2008

This Friday, members of the DelValle Institute for Emergency Preparedness — a joint all-hazards training program run by the Boston Public Health Commission and Boston Emergency Medical Services — will gather at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center for a symposium titled “When Structures Fail: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Local Search and Rescue.”

Among the speakers will be Los Angeles Fire Department Assistant Chief Rick Warford, who’ll offer insights on how to respond to buildings felled or damaged by seismic upheaval. Let’s hope conference attendees will take copious notes.

Ready or not?
Both city and state responders are ready to go should the ground start to shake, says Peter Judge, spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) in Framingham.

“We have all of the federal, state, and local, public and private and volunteer agencies report here in the event,” he says. “The National Guard, US Army Corps of Engineers, State Police, Massachusetts Highway, Department of Public Utilities, Red Cross, Salvation Army — essentially all of the assets of the Commonwealth — would be coordinated out of this facility.”

Make no mistake, “it’s the absolute worst type of event we could have. Our worst-case scenario is an earthquake at night in the winter. That would cover all the bad bases.”

Firefighting, evacuations, search and rescue, getting power up and running, debris management — “All of those [systems] that we utilize in other events would certainly come into play,” says Judge.

Mark Foster, team leader of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Urban Search & Rescue Response System, says his team “still trains regularly for an earthquake-type scenario.” Even so, there have been no actual earthquakes in the US since the national unit was formed as a result of the 1989 World Series quake in Loma Prieta, California.

“We’ve been to Oklahoma City, the World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina. But no earthquakes,” says Foster. “Is our team prepared? Yes. Is Boston, or Massachusetts, or the region prepared? My guess is it could use some improvement. There has been considerable money spent over the past 10 years on improving the ability of the region to respond. There are a lot of plans that are predicated on other scenarios: WMD, terrorist bombings. There are some all-hazard plans. But it isn’t cost-effective to do all-earthquake planning.”

FEMA’s team isn’t actually based in Boston. Its headquarters, which house equipment and staff, are 30 miles north on Route 97 in Beverly. If the ground starts shaking under, say, Copley Square, let’s just hope the North Shore’s infrastructure has survived the event. “One of the issues is getting there,” says Foster. “From Beverly, we don’t know what shape the bridges are in.”

In the short term, it would be local first responders who’d attend to rescue operations. “After all the state’s assets were exhausted and the governor were to ask for assistance, then we would come into play,” says Foster. When the call came, however, “we’d be on the road in six hours.” (Even if bridges were impassable, he says, “usually there’s more than one way in. You don’t have to go over the Mystic River Bridge. And we [have worked] with some of the military: ‘We can’t use our SUV. Can you helicopter us in? Or take us in by boat?’ ”)

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