The images coming out of quake-damaged Japan are truly indescribable. They surpass anything Hollywood special effect crews could come up with, and as powerful as the scenes may be, they pale in comparison to the costs and consequences the country will have to deal with for years to come. Every piece of Japan’s critical infrastructure in the northern portion of the country sustained some type of serious damage, and a full picture of the consequences in lives lost and economic impacts will not be available for some time. Incidents like the 8.9 earthquake and its follow-on tsunami give us all a reason to pause from our daily lives to wonder what would we do if something like that happened here.

That’s just the question the people behind the National Level Exercise 2011 have been asking themselves for nearly a year, as they have been working to pull all of the pieces together for the full-scale drill on the nation’s preparedness that will take place this coming May. Known as NLE11, the exercise is a congressionally mandated full-scale disaster preparedness activity that involves elected and senior leaders from federal, state, local, and tribal governments; multiple public safety members; critical infrastructure owners and operators; and for the first time as an active member of the exercise, the private sector.

This year’s exercise will simulate an earthquake along the New Madrid fault in the central United States. It was in this exact spot 199 years ago that an earthquake occurred that reversed the flow of the Mississippi River for a period of time and caused church bells to ring hundreds of miles away from its epicenter. As shocking as this event was, it also exposed the newly opened American frontier to a phenomenon called liquefaction – an after-effect that you can see happening in Japan right now.

In this year’s exercise, at least five different states will exercise what could be the worst day in American history, surpassing Pearl Harbor, Katrina, the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and several other disasters combined.

It goes without saying that elected leaders, public safety and emergency management officials and citizens are all asking themselves the uncomfortable question of their readiness for a disaster. Some difficult answers may be provided following this May’s activities.

The potential facts of such a Japan-like earthquake occurring at the New Madrid fault line are not at all comforting. Despite the collapse of countless buildings and the prospective snapping of roads, bridges and rail lines, the communications and power grids that our lives all depend on would be severely disrupted.

In short, think of Japanese cities and towns (such as Sentai, Minamisanriku and Shirakawa) that are in catastrophic ruin with thousands of residents missing or in a desperate survival mode in places such as Fort Jefferson, KY, Charleston, MO, and larger cities such as St. Louis, MO or Little Rock, AR.

To some, this type of vision may seem far-fetched or a possible sequel plot line for a movie like Inception, but it was just a few short weeks ago that most of Arkansas experienced an earthquake of 3.0 on the Richter scale.

As heartbreaking and mobilizing as events like the current tragedy in Japan may be, they are also teachable moments that can not only prompt us to ask tough questions but also take action to ready our families, businesses and communities when the worst happens.

We have already seen how some of the preparations that Japan, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and California took to warn their respective populations from approaching tsunamis made a significant difference. Years ago, the loss of life would have been tremendous, but with the use of new technologies and educating the respective populations of what to do when an alert goes out, the losses were not what they could have been.

As history has taught us for millennia, Mother Nature does not discriminate when she unleashes her fury in her various ways. History also teaches that those who learn from the past and plan accordingly are best suited to build the future. That’s something Japan will be doing for some time as it begins its painful recovery process, but it is something the various players of NLE11 will be thinking about even more over the coming weeks with even greater urgency.

All of our futures are depending on it.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More