Fighting a Quake with Counterinsurgency

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

FEMA had a problem. The disaster planners were contemplating what they’d do if an earthquake struck the New Madrid seismic zone, north of Memphis. The area isn’t especially active at the moment, but quakes there in 1811 and 1812 rang church bells in Boston and caused the Mississippi River to run backwards.

Unlike the better-known quake risks in Los Angeles or the Pacific Northwest, the challenge isn’t collapsing skyscrapers or a tsunami. It’s making sure people are OK in the innumerable single-family homes sparsely strewn across the seven-state affected area. FEMA has 28 urban search-and-rescue teams, but they’re designed for heavy-duty situations like large building collapses—not thousands of comparatively simple one- and two-story house rescues.

Despairing, FEMA asked the Defense Department for help—maybe engineering units that could sweep in and assist. Craig Fugate, FEMA’s director, recalls what happened:

“So DoD says, ‘What does that involve?’ ‘Well, essentially, you’re going to have to, if the structure is damaged, breach the structure, do a search, identify any injured, extract them, and get them basic treated and moved to a casualty-collection point.’

DoD says, ‘That’s an 11 bravo.’ Our guys say, ‘What the hell’s an 11 bravo?’”

The Defense Department officials explained that it’s the basic rank for an Army infantryman: “What the hell do you think we’ve been doing in the Middle East for the last 10 years? We’ve been doing urban warfare. We’ve been breaching houses that have been bombed, partially collapsed, going in, looking for the bad guys, and rescuing the innocent. We already do combat first aid, and we already have casualty-collection points.”

In other words, with just a two-hour training course, the Army could deploy a bunch of grunts and solve a problem too large for all of FEMA’s highly trained search-and-rescue teams. Those teams, in turn, would be freed up for the tougher jobs.

Fugate took two lessons from the exchange. One is that agencies like FEMA have to plan for how to deal with the biggest disaster possible, not the biggest disaster it has the capacity to handle in-house. A second is what you might call the Mick Jagger Rule of Disaster Planning—if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need: “Never ask an emergency manager what they want, get them to tell you what outcome they’re trying to achieve.”

For more on Fugate’s philosophy, read my extended interview with him.