NLE 2011: Successful Learning, Plus Partnership Building

In April and May of this year, more than three million U.S. citizens in or around Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Tennessee took part in the largest earthquake preparedness efforts ever in the history of what is called the “New Madrid region.”  Exercise design, development, preparedness, and implementation for “the Great Central U.S. ShakeOut” took more than two years. The mantra for the exercise was the same as it is and has been for all earthquakes: “Drop, Cover, and Hold On.”

This year’s National Level Event (NLE) was designed primarily to encourage public-sector, private-sector, and nonprofit organizations to: (a) consider how, working together as a team, they would react if a real earthquake were to strike; and (b) encourage them to have in place, before such an event occurs, the preventive and preparedness measures needed to cope with it.

At the same time, coincidentally – while the final plans for NLE 2011 were still being discussed – a number of violent storms, historic floods, and devastating tornadoes were causing widespread destruction and killing hundreds of people in a number of U.S. states in various areas of the country. In fact, many responders and decision makers who originally intended to participate in the ShakeOut were forced to alter their plans because of the real-life disasters occurring in their home communities.

The Great Central U.S. ShakeOut was modeled after the Great California ShakeOut drills, which have been scheduled annually since 2008. All of the ShakeOut drills incorporate best practices lessons learned at the Southern California Earthquake Center and the Earthquake Country Alliance – which partnered with the Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC). The New Madrid states’ Governors, including their staffs, and the consortium’s director, Jim Wilkerson and his staff compose CUSEC. The U.S. Geological Survey and dozens of other federal agencies and related organizations throughout the country also provided support, technical assistance, and the “players” needed for various stages of NLE 2011.

Fugate: Studying, Learning & Actually “Doing” Only a few days earlier – i.e., at the 18-22 April 2011 National Hurricane Conference in Atlanta, Georgia – Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate not only set the stage for NLE 2011 but also articulated the profound opportunities ahead by pointing out that such multilayered exercises of catastrophic scenarios “provide a better opportunity for studying and learning from the decision-making process than do real-life disasters.”

The NLE scenario postulated a massive earthquake occurring along the New Madrid fault, which is named after a series of earthquakes, the largest ever recorded in the United States, starting on 16 December 1811 not far from New Madrid, Missouri, and causing major damage over an area of about 50,000 square miles. (The much better publicized San Francisco earthquake of 1906 caused damage over an area of about 6,000 square miles, for example.)  The 1811 earthquake, according to contemporary accounts, was reported to have “rung the church bells all of the way to Boston, and caused the Mississippi River to run backwards for three days.”

The historic significance of the 2011 ShakeOut, deliberately scheduled close to the 200th anniversary of the 1811 disaster, added an important and dramatic element of realism to this year’s series of exercises. Partly for that reason, almost two million people, many of them using social media, signed up to participate in the exercise and/or to keep advised of NLE 2011’s progress. The CUSEC stepped up, as did the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA), to support FEMA, the federal agencies, and the many states participating in what turned out to be an enormously vigorous effort.

In preparation for the exercise, state emergency management directors agreed that they had been fairly well prepared for, and had planned well, for the allocation of resources they already had on hand – but had not planned nearly as well for the resources they did not have on hand. To solve that problem, FEMA, CUSEC, and various state agencies worked in close cooperation in regional Resources Allocation Workshops. Thus, NLE 2011 not only gained greater attention, more innovation, and an enhanced national focus, but also received more widespread support with actionable results, than most other similar exercises. Additionally, Administrator Fugate’s emphasis on the involvement of all elements of the emergency management team in “the Whole of Community” certainly bore fruit in NLE 2011, with a most robust participation level ever achieved in an exercise.

Planning, Coordination, and a Stronger Focus on Processes Following is a brief synopsis of some of the many lessons learned during NLE 2011 – both about the exercise itself and/or worth follow-up consideration by jurisdictions and leaders participating, as well as by emergency management leaders throughout the world:

  • The states participating in NLE 2011 launched an initiative to spend more time and effort in planning for the resources they might need during a catastrophic event but presently do not have in their current inventory of material and personnel resources. Where and how they would acquire these needed resources, as well as the processes available for accomplishing this task, are the principal questions that must be addressed. This will be helpful to other states, outside the New Madrid area, as they prepare for other catastrophic events.
  • As with many other real-life disasters, keeping all exercise participants, including high-level decision makers, fully informed about all aspects of the unfolding disaster was and will be a continuing challenge.
  • Improved operational processes are needed for continuing efforts in making and integrating mission assignments.
  • The equally important “alert” and notification processes, structured to ensure that all participants with “need to know” responsibilities, are kept fully informed when the decision is made to activate a notification process.
  • Improved coordination of all modes of transportation during evacuations also helps to ensure an enhanced, seamless process is in place to cope with all catastrophic events – especially, this year, during what could be a particularly dangerous hurricane season.
  • The continued upgrade of resource support processes now in place will prove quite beneficial going forward. Fortunately, the federal National Response Framework (NRF) covers resource management extensively, and appropriate standards are being developed, and NLE 2011 showed that these and other processes are crucial to full and effective operational preparedness.

To briefly summarize: Huge but immeasurable quantities of hard work, professional and personal commitments, and long hours – years, actually – of unstinting effort were invested in NLE 2011, and many successful results were achieved. Future planning will reap the benefit of these efforts, and future exercises will be able to more precisely pinpoint the potential as well as actual improvements that are most urgently needed. Most important of all, everyone involved in this year’s series of exercises – a broad spectrum of participants ranging from government officials to private-sector businesses and nonprofit organizations to everyday citizens – learned an immense amount of helpful information from the Great Central U.S. ShakeOut. Many valuable partnerships in preparedness were developed and enhanced. Thanks to all who made this possible!


For additional information on:

The Great Central U.S. ShakeOut, visit

Drop, Cover and Hold On, visit

Kay Goss
Kay C. Goss

Kay Goss has been the president of World Disaster Management since 2012. She is the former senior assistant to two state governors, coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years at the Texas firm Electronic Data Systems as a senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She is a senior fellow at the National Academy for Public Administration and serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. She has also been a graduate professor of Emergency Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) CEM Mentor for five years, and chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010.



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