The recent seismic activity in California should serve as a strong reminder to the nation that a catastrophic earthquake in a densely populated area is inevitable. When earthquakes strike, there is little or no notice. They require all of us — from neighbor helping neighbor and across all levels of government, to voluntary organizations and the private sector — to play a role in saving lives and sustaining life. With the recent California quakes, we were reminded that all of us need to do our part to properly prepare before the next big disaster.
In 2017, FEMA introduced a simple but ambitious strategic plan that established three unifying goals to create a more prepared and resilient nation. The second goal of this plan is “readying the nation for catastrophic events,” and it focuses on short-notice events like earthquakes.
These events will stress our system to the point of failure. To address this strategic goal, FEMA is adjusting and bolstering logistical response support contracts to mobilize supplies as quickly as possible, but the reality is that without advanced notice, FEMA will still need time to move supplies into heavily damaged areas.
Recognizing this challenge, communities that are vulnerable to earthquakes need a strategic plan to utilize goods and supplies that already exist within their community — rather than waiting on FEMA and state partners. For example, local leaders need to form private-public vendor managed contracts with grocery and water suppliers that support the local economy every day. These resources are a lifeline.
Americans must also be better prepared to handle the first 24-72 hours after a natural disaster on their own. Given aftershocks and instability in the area, FEMA will not be at the impact zone immediately. Earthquakes damage transportation and supply chain networks, and isolate communities.
While FEMA works to provide aid more quickly, the reality is that the agency cannot make life-saving and sustaining commodities appear in earthquake-ravaged communities immediately after they occur. Local public safety responders will also likely be overwhelmed after these events.
Citizens should act now by learning tangible life-saving skills such as first aid, CPR and how to shut off home utilities. Additionally, citizens need to become the backbone of the initial response phase by becoming familiar with their local emergency management agency and local volunteer disaster relief agencies to understand how they can bolster those organizations’ efforts. Citizens are the true first responder in short to no-notice emergencies, and they are a vital part of the “whole community” response.
Among the most important strategies for earthquake risk reduction are the development, adoption and enforcement of seismic building codes and standards, as well as the seismic rehabilitation of existing structures. Unfortunately, this standardization is not happening in many communities located in vulnerable areas regardless of the threat.
Congress must incentivize mitigation and reward communities that take action to reduce risk by implementing the above strategies. This is especially critical considering that most earthquake casualties result from partial building collapse, falling objects and debris, such as toppling chimneys, falling bricks and compromised structures. Spending the time up front to prevent these types of outcomes will save lives.
Finally, like flood insurance, these recent events remind us it may be time for earthquake insurance reform. We cannot repeat what the nation has seen over the last two years with an underinsured population.
I’ve said numerous times that insurance is first line of defense — FEMA assistance was never designed to make you whole after a disaster.
Although they may not know it, many citizens and communities are either uninsured or underinsured for various reasons ranging from affordability to lack of vulnerability awareness.
For example, the New Madrid Seismic Zone can inflict damage to communities stretching from Illinois to Alabama. As a former Director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, I can testify to the fact that many North Alabamians are unaware of their risk exposure to the New Madrid Seismic Zone and the effects of liquefaction. Also, many citizens within the New Madrid Zone struggle to afford proper insurance coverage. Unfortunately, we’ve seen how this plays out in California, Texas, and other communities impacted by disasters in 2017 and 2018.
To solve the issues surrounding citizens’ lack of insurance, Congress should consider new legislation to enable communities to access FEMA pre- and post-disaster mitigation grant dollars, as well as HUD Community Development Block Grants to help communities offset the affordability issues and lower insurance costs.
Most federal disaster mitigation money is currently used to reduce structural property damage. None of it is focused on increasing insurance coverage for both citizens and local governments, yet that lack of insurance is one of the most serious problems facing the nation. Massive amounts of post-disaster mitigation money is sitting idle because state and local governments cannot meet the cost-share match requirements.
It’s time to rethink how we use disaster dollars to combat future events through increasing insurance levels in addition to strengthening infrastructure. Both the federal government and private insurance companies have a role.
Until we all take innovation action to prepare our families and mitigate our communities, the earthquake vulnerability in America will only grow bigger.
Brock Long is the former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Trump. Long is executive chairman at Hagerty Consulting, an emergency management consulting firm. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of the firm or the agency.