MARYVILLE, Mo. — More than 3,500 people dead. Over 86,000 casualties. Millions of households without power and $300 billion in direct economic losses.
That's the grim scenario FEMA and University of Illinois researchers say the Army National Guard, Air National Guard and Missouri Task Force 1 were facing down this week at two training sites in Maryville. Missouri Task Force 1, based out of Boone County, is one of 28 urban search and rescue teams across the United States that are part of FEMA's National Urban Search and Rescue Response System.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the groups worked through an earthquake disaster scenario, simulating dropping into an area affected by a hypothetical 7.7 magnitude earthquake in the New Madrid seismic zone — not such a far-fetched scenario. In 2009, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated a 7-10 percent chance of an earthquake in the zone over the next 50 years that matched the level of the 1811-1812 quakes that are four of the largest in recorded North American history — between magnitude 7.0 and 8.0. During that same 50-year timeframe, the USGS predicted a 25-40 percent likelihood of a 6.0 quake hitting the region.
So for the past few years, National Guard units and civilian counterparts like Missouri Task Force 1 have been ramping up their training for such disasters.
“This is just one facet of a whole lot larger exercise we've got going on, including down in Fort Leonard Wood, Cape Girardeau and Columbia,” said Capt. James Winfield, the Army National Guard officer in charge at the Mozingo Outdoor Education and Recreation Area site.
In fact, the training is part of an eight-state exercise put on by FEMA — Shaken Fury 2019 — to train for a massive earthquake that could come without warning.
Winfield said that usually, trainings like this take place in one location that participants are familiar with.
“This time we wanted to spread out and try and exercise our ability to coordinate and do this over multiple disparate areas,” Winfield said. “So our main body is still down at Fort Leonard Wood, but we flew two strike teams to Maryville.”
One worked at the MOERA site, while another performed wide area search training on Northwest Missouri State University's campus.
Each of the two days, the units flew in from Fort Leonard Wood in central Missouri to MOERA, where they landed and began the work of the clearing out a “collapsed structure,” built by a contractor specifically for this purpose. The infrastructure built for this training exercise will remain behind for local Guard units and first responders to use.
“Probably the most unique thing about this is that this is a brand new facility constructed just for this purpose in coordination with the university here,” Winfield said. “We don't have a lot of training sites like that that fit that exact criteria."
In a real-world scenario, Winfield admitted, the scene would be much more chaotic and “one part of a much larger choreography.” Not to mention the exercise itself was scheduled to be a bit larger, but real-world flooding took priority.
Helping out were paid role players, complete with makeup to simulate injuries and special circumstances that responders may have to deal with in an actual disaster. From all walks of life, they spent the days acting out maladies and wrinkles to keep the participants on their toes.
“We always get a very interesting array of characters and personality types, including some people who absolutely like to ham it up and scream bloody murder all the time,” Winfield said with a laugh. “And that's honestly, that aids in the realism. We'll get people that, they'll bring props, people who don't want to be separated from their children, their pets, from their family members — they'll push the boundary just as far as they can in order to make our guys react. I think that's an invaluable part of it.”
About two dozen members of the Air and Army National Guard, along with Missouri Task Force 1 members, took part in the exercise in Maryville each day, with about a dozen role players for each day as well.
Across eight states that could suffer serious damage from a massive earthquake at the New Madrid fault — Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee — thousands of National Guard units and specialized response teams are performing similar trainings in late May and early June as part of FEMA's response scenario.