As hurricane approaches, quake raises emergency preparedness questions

The 5.8-magnitude earthquake that rattled the East Coast on Tuesday has raised fresh questions about how prepared citizens and communities are to deal with disasters, as problems with communication capabilities and evacuation plans were readily apparent.

Mobile-phone networks quickly became clogged and unusable in the minutes after the quake, and traffic backed up in the Washington area. Those are just two issues that emergency-response officials will likely be studying in the coming weeks.

W. Craig Fugate, chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, declined to discuss specifics about problems exposed by the earthquake, referring questions about traffic and other problems to local officials. But he said the quake underscores the need for people to be prepared for the unexpected and have emergency backup communication plans, especially with Hurricane Irene expected to hit the East Coast this weekend.

"As infrequently as we think about hurricanes, the earthquake yesterday reminded us that we got to be prepared for a variety of things and the best way to start is make sure you have a family disaster plan," Fugate said in a conference call with reporters. "It reminded people that the unexpected can happen."

Others weren't hesitant to critique what occurred in the earthquake's aftermath. The congested phone lines show the need for emergency responders to have a broadband communications network dedicated to public safety, according to the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International.

"While there [were] no reports of outages or congestion on public safety radio systems, there was an impact on first responders and emergency personnel who relied on their commercial cell phones and data cards to communicate with their colleagues and families," according to a statement late Tuesday from the association. "Clearly, public safety cannot rely on commercial networks during critical incidents and major events, as they cannot gain access to roam onto or gain the level of priority access necessary to be effective in such incidents."

Emergency response officials should also study how to prevent the kind of traffic jams that ensued on Tuesday as people tried to get out of Washington, said David Olive, a homeland security lobbyist and founder of Catalyst Partners, a government relations and public affairs firm.

"First, whenever [the government] decides to let government employees leave early, they should ensure that the D.C. government traffic-operations folks have time to deploy to critical intersections to keep traffic flow manageable," Olive wrote in a blog posting.

He said "any reasonably competent security analyst" knows that people concentrated in an area with limited mobility creates the potential for "a second event," which could include a terrorist attack.

"Second, the human reaction to flood communications pipelines with queries provided an unexpected, but excellent opportunity to stress-test the ability to disseminate and receive information in a Web 2.0 world," he added.

Fugate said mobile-phone networks cannot be counted on to work during emergencies, adding that people should instead use social media and have portable radios. He said it was not surprising to see traffic congestion in the Washington area given the number of people trying to get out of town. But he referred additional questions to local officials.

FEMA is now making preparations for Hurricane Irene, a Category 3 storm with winds up to 115 mph. The storm is expected to make landfall early Saturday along the coast of North Carolina, where state and local officials have already given evacuation orders for coastal communities.

President Obama was briefed on Wednesday by counterterrorism adviser John Brennan about preparations being made by the Homeland Security Department in anticipation of the hurricane, said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

"Unlike an earthquake, this hurricane is a forecasted event that we are watching," Fugate said.

Aamer Madhani contributed.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.