The Defense Department makes valuable contributions in U.S. disaster preparedness planning, a senior defense official said Aug. 25.
At a panel discussion sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, Paul N. Stockton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and Americas’ security, addressed the role the Pentagon plays in disaster planning and response.
Thanks to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Stockton said, he got “a big wake-up call” during a 2011 national exercise that simulated the events surrounding a magnitude 7.7 earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which touches on the states of Tennessee, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, and Kentucky.
“That scenario would have produced destruction on a scale that would differ from Hurricane Katrina in two important dimensions,” he explained. “First of all, on a quantitative scale, we would have had many, many more casualties over a much wider geographic area.
“There’s a second dimension that I believe is even more important,” he continued. “A seismic event of that scale would produce a long-term loss of power – a loss of electric power for weeks to months over a multistate region.” Such a power loss would result in the cascading failure of critical infrastructure, he said.
Gas stations would be closed, Stockton said. Water would be in short supply, because electric pumps are needed to draw water from aquifers hundreds of feet underground, and urban wildfires would rage through cities, he added.
The Defense Department’s challenge is how to better position itself to support civil authorities during disaster response activities, Stockton said. Building resilience against cascading failures of critical infrastructure – even, as in the case of the electric grid, when it is owned by the private sector – is essential to mission assurance, he said.
“Our responsibility to the Department of Defense is to ensure that we can still execute the core missions of the department that the president assigns to us, even if critical infrastructure goes down,” Stockton said.
It’s not a question of if a complex catastrophe will strike, he said, but when.
“We need to continue to improve our … capacity to provide support to civil authorities when the call comes,” Stockton said.
To that end, Stockton pointed to a new complex catastrophe initiative signed by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta that would enable DOD to bring all of its capabilities, from all components, to bear in support of civil authorities. The initiative will make defense support of civil authorities faster and more effective in delivering life-saving and life-sustaining requirements, Stockton said.
In addition to the DOD initiative, a presidential policy directive required revision and addition of national response and recovery plans, Stockton said, noting that the initiatives are intended to streamline disaster planning and disaster recovery.
“It’s enormously helpful to us that the administration has led the integration of all of these lines of effort, including recovery, that we knew were important, [and] that we knew where DOD could make important contributions, but we lacked an overarching policy framework,” he said.
“It’s great when you’re in support to be given the framework within which you’re going to be able to operate and be able to serve,” he added, “and that’s what we have today.”