While the San Andreas fault has the attention of most doomsday scenario buffs, the lesser known New Madrid Fault System is the one that has FEMA (Department of Homeland Security; Federal Emergency Management Agency) tied up in knots.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there were over 500 measurable earthquakes in the New Madrid Fault System since September. A massive quake in this area would kill or injure millions and leave 14 million homeless.
But we may be foolish to take the warning signs too seriously. Federal and state agencies are ramping up a campaign of publicity and events, including drills, conferences and field trips, to convince communities that they face impending earthquake disaster. “The proposed solution is to spend billions of dollars bringing buildings in places like Memphis, where major earthquakes are rare, to the same standards of earthquake resistance as California, where major damaging earthquakes are much more common,” says Seth Stein, Deering Professor of Geological Sciences at Northwestern University.
“Before becoming unduly concerned about this or other disasters, it’s worth remembering that although apocalyptic forecasts are common, they rarely pan out.
In the 1976 “aporkalpse,” the government warned of a 50 percent probability that swine flu would kill a million Americans. Despite critics’ reservations, 40 million people were vaccinated at a cost of millions of dollars before the program was suspended. About 500 people had serious reactions and 25 died, compared to one person who died from swine flu.
As the year 2000, “Y2K,” approached, a government-led program resulted in billions of dollars being spent to avoid the collapse of society resulting from the fact that some computers would think the New Year was 1900. Calmer voices, including Bill Gates, proved correct as few major problems occurred, even among businesses and countries that made little or no preparations. In 2003, the government’s warning of bioterrorism cleared stores of duct tape and plastic sheeting, now discarded or put to better use.
Disaster predictions keep coming, in part because we like being a little scared. We enjoy horror movies, Halloween and roller coasters.
Because we know that the predicted disasters are unlikely, we aren’t surprised when they don’t happen and get enthusiastic when another is predicted. Still, before spending huge sums, it’s worth thinking about the likelihood of a disaster.
In this case, the claims of impending disaster have three weaknesses.
– First, they assume the earthquakes 200 years ago were much bigger than recent research shows. Although they often are claimed to have been the largest to strike the “lower 48” states, that’s not true, as shown by the damage they did and didn’t. Log cabins fell in New Madrid itself, but only minor damage occurred in distant communities like St. Louis, Nashville and Louisville. Church bells in Boston didn’t ring, despite a legend repeated in government publications that arose from confusing the Charlestown area of Boston with Charleston, S.C.
– Second, the scenario assumes that a similar earthquake is coming within the next few hundred years. This seemed plausible 20 years ago, because geological studies found evidence of ones in about 1450 and 900 AD, so it looked like these happen about every 500 years. Since 1990, the new Global Positioning System, GPS, allows geologists to test that idea by measuring small motions of the ground that occur near faults as energy accumulates that will be released in a future earthquake. To our surprise, the ground at New Madrid isn’t moving or is moving very slowly, so there’s no sign of a big earthquake on the way any time soon. We also have realized that most of the small earthquakes that happen in the area today, which have been used to claim that a big one is coming, probably are aftershocks from the large earthquakes 200 years ago.
– Third, the proposed codes specifying how strongly to build buildings use extreme assumptions. Most crucially, they require buildings to be designed for the strongest shaking predicted on average in 2,500 years. Because buildings have a useful life of 50 to 100 years, they are unlikely to experience such rare shaking. That’s why buildings in California or foreign counties are designed to the much less expensive standard of withstanding the shaking expected every 500 years. That’s still much tougher than the criterion used for floods.
The government wants buildings in the Midwest, which are very unlikely to be shaken strongly enough to be seriously damaged, to be built to the standards of those in California, which are more likely to be seriously shaken. This plan has the usual problems with unfunded mandates. Bringing one hospital in Memphis up to California standards would cost about $60 million. Bringing all the buildings in the area up to this standard would take billions of dollars over hundreds of years. Some businesses facing these costs, with little or no benefit, would locate elsewhere or not build new buildings. Communities would lose tax revenue and use resources preparing for earthquakes that could do more good otherwise. Money used putting steel in schools wouldn’t be available to hire teachers, money spent strengthening hospitals couldn’t be used for patient care, and so on.
Surprisingly, this proposal has not been studied to compare its costs and benefits. It amounts to an insurance agent promoting an expensive new policy with no idea of its costs or benefits. Simple calculations suggest that the costs are likely to be much greater than the benefits. As a result, residents should think carefully before committing enormous resources to preparing for unlikely disaster. The best strategy is to enjoy the bicentennial – but not take it too seriously.
Here is the request which FEMA put out last week to suppliers of emergency food (separate requests went out for water and blankets):
OTICE TYPE: Sources Sought Notice
DATE POSTED: 20-JAN-11
OFFICE ADDRESS: Department of Homeland Security; Federal Emergency Management Agency; Logistics Section; 500 C Street SWPatriots Plaza — 5th Floor Washington DC 20472
SUBJECT: RFI for Pre-Packaged Commercial Meals
CLASSIFICATION CODE: 89 – Subsistence
SOLICITATION NUMBER: HSFEHQ-11-R-Meals
CONTACT: Julieann L. Phillips, CONTRACTING OFFICER, Phone 202-646-3234, Fax 202.646.1765, Email Julieann.firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTICE TEXT: Department of Homeland Security
Federal Emergency Management Agency
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) procures and stores pre-packaged commercial meals to support readiness capability for immediate distribution to disaster survivors routinely. The purpose of this Request for Information is to identify sources of supply for meals in support of disaster relief efforts based on a catastrophic disaster event within the New Madrid Fault System for a survivor population of 7M to be utilized for the sustainment of life during a 10-day period of operations. FEMA is considering the following specifications (14M meals per day):- Serving Size – 12 ounce (entree not to exceed 480 calorie count); – Maximum calories – 1200 and/or 1165 per meal; – Protein parameters – 29g-37g kit; – Trans Fat – 0; – Saturated Fat – 13 grams (9 calories per gram); – Total Fat – 47 grams (less than 10% calories); – Maximum sodium – 800-930 mg;
Requested Menus to include snacks (i.e. fruit mix, candy, chocolate/peanut butter squeezers, drink mix, condiments, and utensils). All meals/kits must have 36 months of remaining shelf life upon delivery. Packaging should be environmentally friendly.
– Homestyle Chicken Noodles – Potatoes – Vegetarian Pasta – Green Pepper Steak w/Rice – BBQ sauce w/Beef and diced – Chicken w/Rice and Beans – Chicken Pasta The following questions are put forward to interested parties: 1. Please specify the type of organization responding to the questions (i.e. small business, large business, industry association, etc.) If a small business, please specify all Small Business Administration socioeconomic programs under which your organization qualifies. 2. Does your organization have a product available that meets all the specifications above If the answer is “Yes:” What is the country of origin If the answer is “No:” (a) Can your organization produce such a product (b) What would be the product lead time (c) What country are the manufacturing plants located in 3. Can your organization delivery the product to a specified location within a 24 hour period 4. Please provide an implementation plan for critical delivery orders and delivery surge orders.
5. What states do you already have contracts in place with to provide these types of products
6. Please detail the type of meals and quantities you can provide for each day following a disaster.
7. Please provide alternatives to the meal specifications that your organization can provide.
8. What type of delivery schedule would your organization recommend for the meals
9. Does your organization have the capabilities to deliver products directly to FEMA’s CONUS Distributions Centers
10. Can your organization track deliveries from point of origin to point of delivery
11. What is your lead time for delivery once FEMA has placed an order
Interested parties may also provide brochures, web links, or other literature about their cots available for the specified users. Responses to this RFI are not considered offers and cannot be accepted by the Government to form a binding contract.
Vendors are encouraged to ask the Government questions regarding this potential requirement. Questions must be submitted in writing to Julieann L. Phillips at email@example.com not later than 2:00PM, 26 January 2011 to be answered. Responses to questions will be provided not later than 2:00PM, 03 February 2011. Request for Information closing date is 03 February 2011.
INTERNET ADDRESS: https://www.fbo.gov/spg/DHS/FEMA/OAM/HSFEHQ-11-R-Meals/listing.html
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