Take small steps now before 'The Big One' hits
You’ve probably heard or read about the “really big one” — the monster earthquake off the Northwest coast that could kill more than 14,000 people and injure more than 20,000 in Washington and Oregon.
Well, the quake is going to hit Tuesday, June 7, but the exact time is a secret.
Sometime that morning, emergency planners throughout the Northwest will be told that a 9.0 magnitude quake off the coast has just occurred, bringing with it five minutes of ground shaking, numerous aftershocks stronger than 7.0, and a tsunami that will decimate coastal communities and surge to the far reaches of Whatcom County’s coastline.
Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing. The exercise is called Cascadia Rising and it’s all make-believe. But it’s very serious, indeed.
What is Cascadia Rising?
In a nutshell, emergency planners in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, as well as with tribes and the federal and Canadian governments, will go through the exercise of reacting to a full rupture of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, an offshore fault that runs 700 miles from northern California to Vancouver Island. It’s the largest such exercise ever in the Northwest, with some 6,000 people participating; and that doesn’t count Canadians or stateside military units.
“It’s a lot of moving parts,” said Peter Sessum, spokesman for the regional office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “That’s why it’s taken a couple of years to plan.”
The exercise will last four days, June 7-10, for FEMA and state agencies. Bellingham and Whatcom County agencies will be involved from 8 a.m. Tuesday to 4 p.m. Wednesday, June 8, at the Whatcom Unified Emergency Coordination Center, 3888 Sound Way, near Bellingham International Airport.
More than 65 organizations, with more than 600 participants, will be involved in the local exercise, including amateur radio operators, and more than 50 people trained to staff a mobilization center for community volunteers. State, federal, and Canadian officials will come to Bellingham to observe the local response, and a National Guard communications unit from Utah will arrive on the scene.
“It’s a big exercise,” said Neil Clement, emergency management officer for the Port of Bellingham, “but it’s a big scenario.”
By practicing for a catastrophic disaster — even one that might not occur for 50 or 100 years, or longer — emergency planners will be better prepared to deal with other disasters, from floods and extended power outages to hazardous-material accidents and the eruption of Mount Baker, said John Gargett, deputy director of Whatcom County’s Division of Emergency Management.
How would Whatcom fare in a 9.0 quake?
Rebekah Paci-Green, an earthquake-damage expert at Western Washington University, prepared the damage forecast that forms the foundation for Cascadia Rising (it is 182 pages long). The report’s short version: the quake and tsunami would outstrip Hurricane Katrina as a devastating natural disaster, but Whatcom County would suffer less than many other areas.
While some buildings and facilities could be weakened or rendered useless by the quake, the major impact in the county would be damage to roads from cracking, subsidence, and landslides, Gargett said.
Even if bridges over the Nooksack River survive, roads leading to and from the bridges might not, effectively splitting the county, he said. That would make it harder for emergency responders and the public to move about, and road and bridge damage elsewhere in the region would slow the flow of relief.
The northern part of the county might be cut off from Bellingham’s airport, so the exercise involves such communities as Abbotsford, B.C., with airports large enough to handle relief aircraft.
“Our real planning area is between the Fraser River and the Nooksack,” Gargett said.
At St. Joseph hospital, the focus will be on communications and testing the hospital’s ability to treat patients, even if the hospital sustains damage during a quake.
“Basically, we’re trying to best manage the casualties that we do get,” said James Ornellas, safety manager.
What about a tsunami here?
Statewide, the tsunami is projected to kill nearly all of the 9,400 people who might die in Washington from the quake.
Closer to home, the quake could trigger a water surge — actually, multiple surges — up to 15 feet high into Bellingham Bay and along the county coastline. Low-lying areas such as Sandy Point, Birch Bay and Semiahmoo are especially vulnerable to flooding and damage.
Water surging up the Nooksack and Red rivers could turn Lummi Reservation into an island for three to five days, said Ralph Long, chief of police at Lummi Nation. If that happens, helicopters and boats would be needed to bring in supplies, he said.
The extent of flooding and damage would depend, in part, on the tides. If the tide is low when a surge hits, the impact would be much less; a surge, combined with high tide, could approximate a 23-foot tide, Gargett said.
The extent of damage to boats and docks at Squalicum and Blaine harbors remains unclear, Clement said.
“It’s going to be a mess,” he said. “No question about it.”
A big quake would disrupt normal channels of communication, so the Whatcom exercise will focus on the ability of agencies, responders, industries and others to stay in contact to better assess damage and send help where it’s needed most and first.
“We’re trying to focus it down from ‘the whole world is ending’ to ‘what we can manage?’” Gargett said.
During the exercise, the county sheriff’s communication van will travel to 14 parts of the county — from Point Roberts to Sudden Valley, Lummi Reservation to Silver Lake — to test its equipment and range.
Besides testing technology, such exercises improve and refresh emergency routines that otherwise might grow rusty as time passes and people leave agencies, said John Vidale, a University of Washington professor and director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.
“The central point of the exercise is the emergency managers,” he said. “‘We have to work to keep things fresh.”
What local damage will the exercise deal with?
Gargett has developed a list of quake and tsunami damage in the county for the exercise, but he won’t reveal the details until the exercise begins.
Likely types of damage include landslides, coastal flooding, fires, and major buildings weakened or unsafe.
A benefit of the exercise is that agencies and businesses are thinking ahead about how they would cope with a major disaster, Gargett said. For example, what would Western Washington University do for its students stranded far from home? Or, what would the county do with prisoners and new persons arrested if the jail is evacuated?
“They’re asking these questions now,” Gargett said.
Will the exercise be visible to the public?
The exercise is mostly desktop, but some activity will be visible. A Border Patrol helicopter plans to follow the county coastline, sending live images back to the emergency-response center.
In Bellingham, CERT members in yellow vests and green hard hats will visit some neighborhoods with clipboards to practice damage assessment. CERT stands for Community Emergency Response Team, a program that trains volunteers to help during disasters.
Amatuer radio operators throughout the county are helping out, so expect ham radio traffic to be full of fake emergency reports. The Blaine Auxiliary Communications Service will move its mobile post — a converted ambulance with a self-contained mobile radio room — to various locations around the city on Tuesday.
At WWU, multiple academic and administrative departments will take part Tuesday. Triage tents will be set up on the lawn of the Communications building and people may see facilities staff conducting damage surveys of campus buildings.
Other emergency responders might practice quake responses outdoors; it’s up to each agency whether to do so.
What can the public do?
While agencies practice dealing with a huge disaster, residents can take the opportunity to prepare themselves and their family.
“Ask themselves, ‘What would we do if we had an earthquake?’” Gargett said.
Emergency-preparedness information is available from many sources, including the American Red Cross and the Washington Department of Health. The basics include having an emergency kit for your home and car, having a family plan on where to meet after the shaking stops, and having someone outside the region accept phone calls so family members can update each other.
Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291