As hurricane approaches, quake raises emergency preparedness questions

Earthquake underscores the need for people to have emergency backup communication plans, FEMA chief says.

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.