Senators question U.S. preparedness in wake of Japan's crisis

FEMA says there is no clear answer on first response to a nuclear plant catastrophe.

Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday questioned which federal agency and individual within the federal government would take the lead in responding to a catastrophe like the one gripping Japan.

"Is it really clear who's responsible for what if, God forbid, we had the kind of multiple catastrophes that Japan is experiencing right now?" the committee's ranking member, Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, at a hearing.

There was no clear answer, as FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said that the response would depend on several factors, such as where the disaster occurred and whether local first responders survived. For example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would lead efforts after a disaster at a nuclear-power plant, Fugate said. FEMA, on the other hand, would be responsible for coordinating evacuations around the plant.

Overall, Fugate said, FEMA has made "significant progress" in preparing to deal with a catastrophe, but "we have much work to be done."

But FEMA does not yet have an adequate system to assess what kind of capabilities exist in states and cities across the country to handle disasters, said William Jenkins, the Government Accountability Office's director of homeland-security and justice issues.

The Homeland Security Department and FEMA "have implemented a number of efforts with the goal of measuring preparedness by assessing the capabilities and addressing related challenges, but success has been limited," according to written testimony that Jenkins provided for the hearing.

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., also questioned how prepared the U.S. government is to respond to a catastrophe.

If a disaster involving a nuclear-power plant occurred in his state, Brown said he is not confident the coordination would be good. Fugate said that nuclear-plant operators are required to conduct preparedness drills frequently and face an overall evaluation every two years.

He also said that the tsunami warning system in the Pacific Ocean worked well after the earthquake hit Japan. Fugate said he received a tsunami alert at 2 a.m. last Friday, at which point FEMA acted quickly to prepare for a disaster along the U.S. West Coast that never came.