By Elliot Ferguson
Canada and the United States may need to be willing to re-examine the role of the military in their societies as part of the preparations to deal with major natural disasters, says an American military expert.
Prof. Bert Tussing, director of the Homeland Defense and Security Issues Group at the U.S. Army War College, said preparations need to be made to respond to a "catastrophic incident" that would cause large numbers of deaths and injuries and destroy infrastructure over a large geographic area.
"You want to plan and prepare for the worst and pray that the worst never happens," Tussing said while addressing the 11th annual Kingston Conference on International Security at the Residence Inn Kingston Water's Edge.
Tussing said the role of the armed forces in times of natural disaster is to support civilian agencies in their response, not assume control.
In recent cases in the United States where the military was called in -- after the 1992 Los Angeles earthquake and in 2005 after hurricane Katrina -- the operations were short and the military withdrew quickly when its help was no longer needed, Tussing said.
Tussing used the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 as an example of a natural disaster that could threaten the stability of the country.
Three earthquakes in late 1811 and early 1812 -- all registering more than 7.3 on the Richter scale -- caused damage across 600,000 square kilometres and temporarily reversed the flow of the Mississippi River.
Rebuilding after that disaster took several months, at a time when there was little infrastructure.
Tussing said a similar earthquake now would cause widespread devastation. He added that it would take about 18 months to restore critical services, such as electricity and water.
In that time, local law enforcement agencies would be hard-pressed to maintain social order and it may fall to the armed forces to keep society together.
Tussing said governments need to put in place plans that give the military and civilian agencies clear roles during times of widespread and enduring disaster.
"It's time for us to plan now," he said.
This year's conference examines how militaries change and adapt to new situations during war and peace.
Conference participants looked at the "grey zone" between war and peace populated by non-governmental organizations, private corporations armed groups and states.
"It is hard to grasp, define, put borders and boundaries around it," said Maj.-Gen. Jean-Marc Lanthier, Canadian Army Doctrine and Training Centre.
"If we define the problem too narrowly, we will miss the solutions because the complexity of the problem makes it necessary to analyze it in the broadest sense."
This year's conference was meant to bring together military, academic, private sector and non-governmental organizations to discuss different issues.
Joining Tussing on the first discussion panel on Tuesday morning were Andrew Carswell from the International Committee of the Red Cross, Almero Retief from the mining company Rio Tinto, and Diego Ruiz-Palmer, an economics and security adviser to the NATO aecretary general.
"As an academic doing security and defence research, I really cherish those opportunities to have members of the armed forces, people from government and even the private sector react to the kind of research I am doing," said Prof. Stefanie von Hlatky of the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen's University.
"It usually takes the discussion in unexpected places."