Workers pour into the streets alone 1st street after their buildings where evacuated after a earthquake sent tremors from the nation's capital to New York City and New England Tuesday afternoon, the result of what officials said was a 5.8 magnitude temblor based in Virginia. (Photo By Douglas Graham/Roll Call)

Yesterday at 1:51 p.m. Eastern Time, a 5.8-magnitude earthquake struck near a small town outside Washington, D.C., the strongest such tremor in 67 years. The geological event, which affected the eastern third of the United States, sent thousands of workers in our nation’s capital (and in New York City) scurrying into the streets waiting for news of what to do next. Fortunately, the quake resulted in only some minor injuries and minor damage to buildings, a shortened workday, and gridlock on the streets of Washington, but it is a reminder of America’s vulnerability to natural disaster—and that the United States must be prepared to ensure its homeland security.

The Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano explains that when an earthquake strikes, “virtually every category of local emergency responder will be required” to help cope with physical injury, fire fighting, hazardous materials, ensuring public safety and restoring infrastructure, and providing shelter, food, and water for displaced persons, if necessary. Where a disaster is severe—earthquakes included—the federal government may deploy assistance.

But the federal government has taken on an increasing role in disaster response. In the new paper “Homeland Security 4.0,” Heritage reports that America has over-federalized disaster response in a way that threatens the resiliency of the nation’s communities. In his two and a half years in office, President Obama has issued 360 declarations without the occurrence of one hurricane or large-scale earthquake. That continues a 16-year trend during which declarations tripled from 43 under President George H. W. Bush to 89 under President Bill Clinton to 130 under President George W. Bush. As a result, Heritage notes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is becoming distracted by responding to routine natural disasters instead of preparing for catastrophic natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, which could have a national impact:

The federalization of routine disasters requires FEMA to become involved with a new disaster somewhere in the United States every 2.5 days. This high operational tempo is affecting FEMA’s overall preparedness because it keeps FEMA perpetually in a response mode, leaving little time and few resources for catastrophic preparedness. With staffing levels and budgets only nominally above pre-1993 levels, it should be no surprise that FEMA is not prepared to handle a catastrophic disaster.

The federal government’s increased involvement in natural disaster response is having an effect on state and local response, too. Heritage homeland security expert Matt Mayer explains that FEMA ” has been responding to almost any natural disaster around the country, be it a contained three-county flood, or a catastrophe of near-epic proportions like Hurricane Katrina. As a result, many states and localities have trimmed their own emergency-response budgets, often leaving them ill prepared to handle even rain- or snowstorms without federal assistance. This leaves FEMA stretched far too thin and ill prepared to respond to grand-scale catastrophes.” What’s needed is an overhaul of the process for declaring federal disasters and dispensing homeland security grants.

Disaster response, though, isn’t the only area where America’s homeland security needs improvement. Fortunately, since September 11, 2001, the United States has thwarted at least 40 Islamist-inspired terrorist plots aimed at the United States. But the very fact that so many attempts have been made illustrates that defending the homeland is still a challenge. In the “Homeland Security 4.0″ report, Heritage finds that “effective homeland security requires a more federalist, decentralized approach of working with state and local government and the private sector.”

Heritage’s proposals include establishing a framework for empowering state and local authorities to meet their responsibilities for disaster response and domestic counterterrorism operations; adopting a fair, honest, and realistic approach to immigration enforcement that recognizes state and local authorities as responsible partners rather than an “amnesty first” strategy; maintaining the use of key counterterrorism tools, such as those authorized under the USA PATRIOT Act; and rethinking the Transportation Security Administration and restructuring its mission.

Whether it’s earthquakes or terrorist attacks, the United States must be prepared for threats to the homeland. But getting the nation’s homeland security systems and responses right is among the most difficult challenges in Washington. Over-centralization, pervasive complacency, and entrenched politics stand in the way to more effective homeland security. Now is the time for Washington to make sure it gets it right instead of waiting for a catastrophe to strike.

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