An interview with FEMA’s Kenneth Murphy

By James Marconi
Director of Public Relations, NDTA

When the office building in southeast Washington, D.C., began to sway, my first reaction was confusion. Seconds later, rational thought kicked in and belatedly accepted that yes, I was experiencing an earthquake.

The 5.8-magnitude earthquake notably damaged the Washington Monument and National Cathedral, among other buildings. Like many people that day, I had difficulty calling family via my cell phone to let them know I was okay. The less said about my long Metrorail ride home, the better.

Though earthshaking, the quake wasn’t quite earth-shattering, at least not on the scale we typically associate with San Francisco or Japan. And then there is the Cascadia subduction zone, which I first learned about in a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece succinctly, and appropriately, titled “The Really Big One.”

Since I live on the East Coast, I didn’t fixate too long on the devastating potential for the Pacific Northwest. But it’s a small world, as they say, and in June I learned a bit more at our Washington, D.C. Chapter’s monthly luncheon. The presentation by FEMA’s assistant administrator for logistics gave a 50,000-foot overview of the agency’s transportation and logistics considerations in disaster planning, including the Cascadia subduction zone.

Being both personally curious and professionally obligated, I requested an interview with Kenneth Murphy, FEMA’s Regional Administrator for Region X. If there’s one person in this country who has to think deeply about what an earthquake and tsunami combination would mean for the Pacific Northwest – and how to respond – it’s Murphy. The phone interview below is an excerpted version, edited for length and clarity. For the full interview, stay tuned for the August edition of the Defense Transportation Journal.

 Defense Transportation Journal: To start with, can you provide some basic background information on your responsibilities as the FEMA Region X administrator?

Kenneth Murphy: Our mission is to support our citizens and first responders, and to ensure as a region and as a nation that we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capabilities to prepare for, protect against, respond to and recover from all hazards. I’ve got a very large geographic area here, so we have plenty of different types of hazards that we face in this region, especially earthquakes.

DTJ: Speaking of which, the little bit of reading I’ve done about the Cascadia subduction zone seems to indicate that a major natural disaster – an earthquake – in your region is highly likely. So, what is your understanding of that threat and its potential impact on the region?

Kenneth Murphy: The Cascadia subduction zone is two plates that sit out in the ocean, and these plates are pushing against each other. This subduction zone for earthquakes runs from northern California, all the way up to Vancouver Island in Canada.

We really don’t have any good methods of prediction, although I hope we will someday. We do know that earthquakes in the subduction zone happen every 300 to 500 years. The last one happened in January 1700, so about 317 years ago. We really don’t know when it will happen again – it could happen tomorrow, it could happen 200 years from now. We try and impress upon people that every day is earthquake season, and therefore we should take the time to be better prepared.

Impacts are very, very difficult to determine. I think it’s safe to say that the impact would probably be unlike anything that we’ve ever seen before. There will be power outages, and a certain amount of roads, bridges, tunnels and different transportation modes that will be totally or partially inoperable. I think we’ll see those buildings that are old and were not built to the current building codes partially or fully collapsed. And then we’ll have a lot of secondary disasters like broken gas lines and broken water mains. And I failed to mention you have the tsunami that would also hit the West Coast of northern California, Oregon and Washington.

The Military Sealift Command Large, Medium-speed Roll-on/Roll-off ship, USNS Bob Hope (T-ARK-300) lowers a conex box to an Improved Navy Lighterage System causeway ferry during the Joint Logistics Over-the-Shore (JLOTS) exercise. JLOTS is the process by which rolling stock and containers of military cargo are moved from ship to shore without the benefit of a port. The exercise is also part of the operation Cascadia Rising, an emergency preparation operation. (U.S. Navy photo by MC3 Charles D. Gaddis IV)

The U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command ship USNS Bob Hope (T-AKR 300) lowers a conex box to a causeway ferry during the Joint Logistics Over-the-Shore exercise, also part of Cascadia Rising. JLOTS is the process by which rolling stock and containers of military cargo are moved from ship to shore without the benefit of a port. (U.S. Navy photo by MC3 Charles D. Gaddis IV)

DTJ: To that point, if this type of event happened in the near future, what would the region’s needs be and what role would FEMA be taking to respond?

Kenneth Murphy: FEMA’s role in this is the lead federal agency in coordinating at the local, regional and national level. Now, in all honesty if we had an earthquake here, I’m quite sure that myself and my team here in the region would be disaster survivors, actually a part of the disaster. So as part of our plan, this becomes a national effort led by FEMA, and it really will take the entire nation to respond to this. FEMA will lead this effort to execute a preset list of duties and responsibilities to bring to bear on the region, and it will be handled out of Washington, D.C.

Members of the Coast Guard Mobile Medical Unit-West participate in a simulated medical evacuation during Cascadia Rising exercise at Naval Magazine Station Indian Island, Washington, June 9, 2016.  The Mobile Medical Unit is a fast response emergency medical platform that can deploy to highly impacted areas during a disaster. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by PO3 Andrea Anderson)

Members of the Coast Guard Mobile Medical Unit-West participate in a simulated medical evacuation during Cascadia Rising exercise at Naval Magazine Station Indian Island, Washington, June 9, 2016. The Mobile Medical Unit is a fast response emergency medical platform that can deploy to highly impacted areas during a disaster. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by PO3 Andrea Anderson)

DTJ: I’m sure there’s quite a laundry list of responsibilities – what might some of those immediate actions be?

Kenneth Murphy: Well you’re correct, the responsibility list is very large. Some of the immediate things are to start shipping to locations in eastern Washington and eastern Oregon that are called incident staging bases. So immediately there will food, water, medical equipment, that type of thing, that will automatically be shipped to those areas to then be broken down and to be delivered to the disaster area.

In this particular case, we have teams that will immediately start deploying to do search and rescue. This is literally hundreds if not thousands of people from across the nation to start going through rubble. Other teams will look at the shape of roads and bridges and airports, so that we can start preparing the transportation system. Really some of the first things we will do for actually many days, if not weeks, will be life saving and life safety, making sure that we do everything to take care of the citizens that have suffered from this disaster.