Jefferson Barracks Hosts 'Missouri ShakeOut' Earthquake Exercise

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jeffrey M. Bishop
  • 131st Bomb Wing Public Affairs
This historic installation located on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River was the epicenter of a major earthquake response exercise Oct. 16 and 17.

More than 200 volunteer structural and civil engineers, architects and building inspectors trained and practiced skills to quickly assess and determine if damaged buildings would be safe to use following a natural disaster like an earthquake, tornado or hurricane.

The Missouri ShakeOut exercise scenario featured a 7.7-magnitude earthquake on the New Madrid fault line - a realistic possibility given the ironic happenstance that a real-world 3.4-magnitude tremblor occurred on day 1 of the exercise in southern Missouri, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

"A major earthquake is the worst-case scenario for structural damage," said Ben Ross, Missouri Structural Assessment and Visual Evaluation Coalition board chairman and lead planner for the event. "This exercise will help us determine if we're ready to handle it."

After receiving refresher training on damage criteria, GPS systems and new mobile app-based real-time reporting tools, two- or three-person inspection teams fanned across the base, using booklets with photographs of Jefferson Barracks' historic buildings to assess actual buildings. The photographs were doctored with indicators of structural damage of varying degrees to simulate real damage expected in such an event.

Jan Mercer, a civil engineer from Troy, Illinois, was impressed by the beauty and history of the base, and cited the realism of the training.  Mercer, who has been active in SAVE since 2010, said the construction methods used for the buildings on the installation - unreinforced concrete and masonry - are common across St. Louis and the Midwest, especially in more historic areas. 

"This is primarily what St. Louis is, all the way out through the Central West End," she said.  "Unreinforced masonry was commonly used throughout the early 1960s.  In a real event, the damage would be devastating." 

Bryan Edwards, an inspector with Maryland Heights in north St. Louis County, didn't have the benefit of such a training exercise before needing to apply it real-world following the Good Friday tornado in 2011, which damaged or destroyed dozens of homes and businesses in his municipality. That same tornado caused severe damage to a number of buildings at Lambert Field Air National Guard Base, home to the former 131st Fighter Wing.  That Missouri Air National Guard unit is now the 131st Bomb Wing, with continued responsibility for Jefferson Barracks.

"I'd been an inspector for 25 years prior to that, and didn't know anything about the placards," Edwards said of the red-yellow-green building markers used in the structural assessment system. "We're doing the same things here that we did in real life."

Beyond providing access to Jefferson Barracks, the base's 131st Civil Engineering Squadron provided on-the-ground engineering and logistics support, while the Guard's 231st Civil Engineering Flight, a tenant unit, has participated in planning the event since February.  In preparation for the exercise, the 231st provided SAVE training to nearly the entire flight, said Maj. Rachel Jackson, a civil engineer in the unit and the Missouri Guard's lead liaison to the SAVE coalition.

"We can use the training as we do construction projects in South America or in disaster response," said Jackson, specifically citing the unit's deployment to Haiti following an earthquake there in 2010. "It's another arrow in our quiver and we're honing our SED (state emergency duty) responsiveness.  But the real benefit to this event is the relationships and name-recognition we're establishing."

"This is the first time we've worked with the military," said Ross of the interaction with the Missouri Air National Guard.  "It worked out great that there were engineers at Jefferson Barracks that we could work with." 

Beyond engineering and planning support, the 239th Combat Communications Squadron provided commercial telephone and Wi-Fi service to participants via its Joint Incident Site Communications Capability. Complementing ham radio emergency communications systems like those operated by local Amateur Radio Emergency Service volunteers, the JISCC system is perfect for an earthquake disaster response, when all standard communications infrastructure would likely be destroyed.

Operating from the ballroom on the second floor of building 1 required the IT infrastructure to be on the floor with the exercise participants, with the satellite antenna outside the building, down a fire escape and a dozen yards away from people and buildings.

"It's a good training opportunity for us to set up and operate the equipment," said Tech. Sgt. Kathryn Kiel, team lead for the 239th. The JISCC system is relatively new, and has previously been used for wing and joint training exercises and for one real-world SED operation. "Each time is different, so having a different scenario to react to is good," she added.

The exercise was conducted by SAVE in partnership with the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency. A number of sponsors, support from the Missouri Air National Guard and participation from dozens of federal, state, municipal, non-profit and private organizations and individuals helped make the event a success - a complement of participants that specifically replicates what would occur in a real event, said Ross.

Missouri's SAVE Coalition includes more than 1,000 volunteers who are available to assist after a major natural disaster. In coordination with Missouri SEMA, SAVE members have assisted the state during five disasters, including the May 2011 Joplin tornado, according to Ross. 

The New Madrid Seismic Zone, centered in southeast Missouri, is the most active seismic zone east of the Rocky Mountains, with about 200 minor earthquakes each year. Scientists say there is an up to 40 percent chance that a major earthquake will happen at the fault in a 50-year timeframe.

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