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February 9, 2012

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200 years later, still at risk Earthquakes: We must overcome political challenges to prepare before the next catastrophe
By James Lee Witt and Adm. James Loy

Some of us may remember drills in school during the Cold War for a nuclear attack by hiding under desks and covering them in sheets. Fortunately, it never became a live exercise.

On Tuesday, 2.3 million people in nine states participated in the Great Central U.S. ShakeOut drill to learn how to survive a catastrophe that is almost certain to occur again.

Two hundred years ago on that day, the last in a series of earthquakes struck in New Madrid, Mo., mid-way between St. Louis and Memphis.

The earthquakes were equal in force to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake but affected an area 10 times larger. They changed the course of the Mississippi River, formed new lakes, damaged structures as far away as Cincinnati, and rang church bells in Boston. Their shock waves covered more than a million square miles, from Mississippi to Massachusetts.

A 2010 study by the University of Illinois found that a modern day replay of the New Madrid earthquakes would be a megacatastrophe. Over an eight-state region, it could render seven million people homeless, damage 715,000 buildings, and cause total economic harm approaching $1 trillion.

The human toll would be enormous; the economic toll would be paralyzing.

Because St. Louis and Memphis are in such close proximity to the New Madrid Fault, those important cities would suffer the most damage. However, the impact would radiate beyond the region. The immediate area is host to four of the five major interstate natural gas pipelines and other critical infrastructure that would affect the entire country.

Vast parts of the United States are vulnerable to earthquakes, as residents living in Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states will remember after the earthquake hit near our nation's capital last summer.

The economic devastation and the potential for the costliest financial bailout in the nation's history could be avoided if we begin to strengthen our financial infrastructure now, before the crisis. We should create a public-private partnership, maximize both the private and public sectors, and pre-fund to deal with the financial costs of large-scale natural catastrophes.

Our solution would build a privately funded national catastrophe fund for those states or regions that chose to participate. It would be publicly administered, operate on a tax-exempt and non-profit basis, and private insurance companies would pay into the fund. No taxpayer dollars would be used to build up the fund, and the law would protect taxpayers from the inevitable after-the-fact bailout we use today to help communities recover from natural catastrophes. In a period of high deficits and growing concern over our debt, fiscal responsibility demands that we effectively prepare for events we know are inevitable.

A better, proactive approach that leverages private sector dollars and that strengthens America's financial and preparedness infrastructure to deal with catastrophe is a solution we need to protect catastrophe victims, American taxpayers and the fragile economy.

Fortunately, this approach has wide bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. ProtectingAmerica.org stood in support of legislation to advance this solution which passed the House of Representatives in 2007 and the House Financial Services Committee in 2010 with sponsorship by members from more than 30 states. The challenge is to overcome political obstacles and to act before the next crisis.

The time to act is now.

James Lee Witt and Adm. James Loy are co-chairs of ProtectingAmerica.org. Mr. Witt is CEO of Witt Associates, a public safety and crisis management consulting firm, and was director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Bill Clinton. Adm. Loy is senior counselor at The Cohen Group and was commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard and deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.

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