Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano says the U.S. is constantly preparing to respond to disasters like the one in Japan. She says an annually held, major disaster preparedness exercise is already scheduled to be held May 16 to 20. This year's event will be held in the New Madrid earthquake zone which runs through several states along the Mississippi River in the center of the country.
According to the DHS website, "The purpose...is to prepare and coordinate a multiple-jurisdictional integrated response to a national catastrophic event. NLE 2011 will involve thousands of government officials at the federal, state, local and tribal levels, members of the private sector, and the general public. Participants will conduct simultaneous, related exercise activities at command posts, emergency operation centers and other locations in the Washington D.C. area and the eight affected central U.S. states (Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee)."
Napolitano mentioned the exercise in response to reporter's questions after her speech at the National Fusion Center Conference. The Secretary said the first priority of the department and other federal agencies is to assist Japan in responding to what she termed a triple disaster. "They've been hit by a record earthquake, they've been hit by a tsunami, they've been hit by a nuclear crisis."
She went on to say that the federal government, "is constantly practicing, using scenarios that are worst case scenarios to make sure that we are as prepared and up to date as we can be in any kind of crisis." Napolitano said a nuclear crisis is one of those the U.S. works to prepare for. "We practice with the guidance and participation of the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) what would happen if something were to occur to one of the nuclear power plants in the United States."
While not a specific response to the crisis in Japan, the planned National Level Exercise in the New Madrid Seismic Zone is timely, as there are several nuclear power plants in the region.
Earlier, in a speech to homeland security advisors, law enforcement and intelligence officials, Secretary Napolitano announced the expansion of DHS' new "If You See Something, Say Something" public awareness campaign. "Ensuring our security is a shared responsibility that requires every individual to be alert and to recognize and report suspicious behavior."
The Secretary stressed the vital role played by fusion centers around the country which facilitate information sharing among federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies. "Homeland security begins with hometown security, and our national network of fusion centers plays a critical role in improving our collective ability to protect our communities."
Napolitano stressed that the biggest challenge today comes from homegrown violent extremists who are residents or citizens of the United States. She mentioned that Colorado's fusion center played a crucial role in the arrest of terror suspect Najibula Zazi, who is accused of planning a terror attack in New York City.