As dramatic scenes of destruction from tornados in the South flash across our televisions, many states across the Midwest and South were preparing for a similar calamity: an earthquake along the New Madrid fault line. At 10:15 this morning students in schools across eleven states were practicing their earthquake preparedness actions for “The Great Central U.S. Shakeout.” Over three million students, individuals, and other stakeholders were registered to participate. (I should acknowledge the obvious: given the vast destruction across the South, the residents there are focused on real life response and recovery efforts.)

Today’s earthquake exercise, with active participation by the Secretaries of the Departments of Education and Homeland Security, is a laudable effort to increase public knowledge of the threat the area faces and provide tangible actions that individuals can take in the face of the disaster. It is the first exercise of its kind in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, where the threat of a catastrophic earthquake—akin to one that struck the area 200 years ago—represents a potential threat to the 40 million who live there.

The exercise emulates student preparedness programs in other countries. In Japan, school children have monthly earthquake drills that both that both instill a sense of readiness and hone their skills to give them the best chance for survival. No doubt these skills proved their value during the recent earthquake there.

Next month, National Level Exercise 2011 (NLE-11) will test the governmental response to a New Madrid quake. NLE-1 represents the first such exercise to focus on a natural disaster and one that is long overdue. The pairing of today’s public preparedness effort with a government-wide exercise is a synergistic effort that deserves replication for the array of hazards we face across the U.S.

Today’s exercise will hopefully enhance the public’s understanding of the New Madrid threat and the actions they can take to mitigate its potential consequences. And the devastating tornados in the South should serve as a painful reminder for the complacent few who do not see a value in preparing for the risks we face.