SAN FRANCISCO -- Earthquakes in Chile, Haiti, Pakistan, Solomon Islands, Mexico, Indonesia and Italy have shaken the world's awareness with tremors of destruction in the past five years.

For the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers South Pacific Division, it is an awareness focused toward emergency response.

On March 30, the earthquake that shook the division's 100-person workforce into emergency management action had its epicenter veiled in a memorandum entitled "Operation Cornerstone Response," a two-day familiarization exercise focused on "training personnel, testing the division's readiness systems and validating its emergency management procedures," said South Pacific Division Commander Brig. Gen. Rock Donahue.

The division deployed one of Headquarters U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Deployable Tactical Operations Centers, stationed at the Byrte Yard in Sacramento, to the San Francisco District's Bay Model Visitor Center in Sausalito, Calif., to increase its readiness posture by emulating remote operating conditions in the event of a disaster.

"When the call comes in, the DTOS crew departs within six hours to go wherever they are needed to bring command and control to a remote location, either in the state of California or anywhere in the division's 10-state region," said Donahue.

DTOS Team Leader Moe Adams explained that they have to have the entire system up and operational within two hours after arrival. Additionally, the division manned the San Francisco District's Emergency Operations Center inside the Bay Model to increase realism into the exercise.

Joined by three support specialist and information technology professionals, Adams explained her crew took home some lessons learned during the exercise.

"The phones we provided in the units were not working properly and the satellite connection was slower than the air card connection to the internet," she said. "I think the real value of the exercise was that people forced to work remotely due to national disaster responses now see they have options ... they can connect via satellite (DTOS) via a traditional wire connection at the Emergency Operations Center, or they can use air cards if there are still cell phone towers standing and operational."

For many of the 100 division employees participating in the familiarization exercise, memories of the 1989 Loma Prieta 6.9 magnitude earthquake in which 63 people died and $6 billion in destruction served as a reminder of how quickly the division's infrastructure can be shattered into rubble and how important its emergency management response is to the communities where employees live and work.

"We are training, educating and developing our workforce," Donahue said of the exercise. "The professionals who work in San Francisco who don't always get a chance to participate in emergency management type situations receive valuable training while we validate our standard operating procedures for emergency response."

Terry Mendoza, a division expert in personal disaster response preparedness, remembers the earthquake that rattled San Francisco houses into piles of rubble, shattered bridges and overpasses, clogging the city's emergency management arteries and bringing the 1989 World Series to irrelevance.

"We have made great strides in our emergency response since the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989," Mendoza said. "Yes, we had some semblance of emergency plans, but we really didn't have a remote location to report to that was ready to receive us. Most of us ended up at the Presidio of San Francisco sharing space with 6th Army. We didn't have laptop computers, just a few Motorola radios and some paper files. No pre-deployed kits or formally established response teams."

"This exercise served as a good reminder that we should always be ready at a moment's notice to respond to an emergency on both a personal and professional level. We all must pitch in," she said.

Others pocketed different lessons.

South Pacific Division Security Officer Lt. Col. Timothy Kohn explained the exercise was "a forcing function to make me think about how I operate every day; the need to save documents and key items on drives that can be remotely accessed and to what tools I need to successfully conduct my job outside of the office."

Shareen Barry, an administrative assistance with the division said, "I learned that no matter where I would be in an emergency, as long as there is a spot to log onto my laptop, I can still stay in touch with what my workload requires."

The division tapped into local resources as well for the exercise.

San Francisco District's Emergency Operations Center offered video-teleconferencing capability not found in the DTOS, and provided overflow staffing resources for additional headquarters staff including accommodating employees with mobility issues.

"Accessing the district's Bay Model and Visitor Center and the Base Year at Sausalito greatly enhanced the exercise experience for the division staff," said Amy Aton, national emergency preparedness program manager.

For Thomas Niedernhofer, there was nothing simulated about bringing his expertise to "Operation Cornerstone Response."

Niedernhofer, a USACE Urban Search and Rescue engineer specialist, provided engineering "reachback" structural damage assessment and support by evaluating photos and videos tele-engineered to help Virginia-based 911th Technical Rescue Engineering Company determine in "real time" if buildings were structurally safe to enter during a concurrent military exercise at a prison in Lorton, Va.

"It is all about readiness and responding to either a natural disaster or other type of all-hazardous contingency," Donahue said. "For many of the 36,000 employees throughout the Corps that are deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti or across the nation responding to national emergencies, they understand emergency response. However, many employees have not deployed. What we hope to achieve is to give our professionals an understanding of DTOS and give them a chance to participate for a couple of hours."

"When you occupy one of these work stations and conduct operations in a confined space, you have to adjust both mentally, physically and emotionally to sustain for a long period of time in a crisis response mode," he said. "We focused on our people, procedures and improving preparedness. "Operation Cornerstone Response" validated our emergence response."

The emergency response threat is real.

Since 1900, an average of 16 magnitude 7 or greater earthquakes - the size that seismologists define as major - occur annually worldwide. Some years, as few as 6 have been registered, as in 1986 and 1989, while in 1943, 32 major earthquakes shook across the world.

Since 1950, more major earthquakes in the South Pacific Division area of operation than the rest of the nation, with 17 quakes registering magnitude 6.5 or higher have occurred.

California Earthquakes - Magnitude
1952: Kern County - 7.3
1992: Landers - 7.3
1980: Humboldt County - 7.2
1992: Cape Mendocino - 7.2
2005: Off the Northern Coast - 7.2
1999: Hector Mine - 7.1
1991: Honeydew - 7.0
1994: Cape Mendocino - 7.0
1989: Loma Prieta - 6.9
1987: Superstition Hills - 6.7
1994: Northridge - 6.7
1971: San Fernando - 6.6
2003: San Simeon - 6.6
2005: Off the Northern Coast - 6.6
1954: Eureka - 6.5
1987: Superstition Hills - 6.5
1992: Big Bear - 6.5
2010: Offshore Northern Coast - 6.5

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, regardless of the number of earthquakes, "it does not diminish the fact that there has been extreme devastation and loss of life in heavily populated areas."

Scientists from the USGS give California more than a 99 percent chance of having a magnitude 6.7 or greater earthquake within the next 30 years.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16