Op-Ed

Preparedness test will help community deal with quakes

Lacey Shoemaker, disaster program manager for the Northwest Washington Chapter of the American Red Cross, shows off what should be included in an emergency kit in February, 2016, in Bellingham. To learn more about neighborhood preparedness and what you and your family can do to prepare for an emergency, visit the Whatcom Unified website at whatcomready.org.
Lacey Shoemaker, disaster program manager for the Northwest Washington Chapter of the American Red Cross, shows off what should be included in an emergency kit in February, 2016, in Bellingham. To learn more about neighborhood preparedness and what you and your family can do to prepare for an emergency, visit the Whatcom Unified website at whatcomready.org. pdwyer@bellinghamherald.com

What would we do if an emergency hits our community? If we’re faced with a crisis like a pipeline explosion or an earthquake, it takes a cooperative and collaborative approach to make sure our community is safe and gets the resources it needs.

Bellingham, Whatcom County and the Port of Bellingham are fortunate to have established a cooperative approach to emergency management through Whatcom Unified, a joint effort that operates our Emergency Coordination Center near the Bellingham International Airport. The center was retrofitted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for use as a federal, state and local coordination center during the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Vancouver, B.C.

our community’s earthquake preparedness through a multi-state exercise called “Cascadia Rising,” a four-day functional exercise that will occur state-wide June 7-10.

Two years later, Whatcom County and Bellingham emergency management started a serious dialogue with their private sector counterparts at the British Petroleum refinery regarding the feasibility of establishing a new coordination center in the facility. With the support of Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, Mayor Kelli Linville, and Port of Bellingham Executive Director Rob Fix, we formed a new partnership to open an Emergency Coordination Center. British Petroleum donated equipment and furnishings and Phillips 66 donated $50,000 to enhance the infrastructure of the center. The result of this cooperation, collaboration, and hard work is the Whatcom Unified Emergency Coordination Center.

The purpose of the center is to have an emergency response facility large enough to handle the 300-plus state, local, federal and private sector response personnel who could potentially respond to a local event. When not activated for a disaster, the center is a no-cost venue for local first responder trainings, meetings and exercises.

Earthquake response

While we have continuing exercises and trainings at the Emergency Coordination Center, this year we will be getting to test our community’s earthquake preparedness through a multi-state exercise called “Cascadia Rising,” a four-day functional exercise that will occur state-wide June 7-10.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and tsunami is one of the most complex disaster scenarios that emergency management and public safety officials face in the nation. Scientific evidence indicates that a magnitude 8.0-9.0 earthquake occurs along the 800-mile Cascadia Subduction Zone fault once every 200 to 500 years. The last major earthquake and tsunami occurred in our region more than 300 years ago in 1700.

An earthquake of this size would impact more than 140,000 square miles with up to five minutes of continuous shaking. Recent subduction zone earthquakes around the world underscore the catastrophic impacts we could face when a major earthquake and tsunami occurs in our region. In 2004, the Indonesia earthquake had a magnitude of 9.1 and 228,000 fatalities, and the Japan earthquake of 2011 of a magnitude of 9.0 had 18,000 fatalities.

While these numbers are alarming, Bellingham and Whatcom County have some things in our favor if we were faced with a similar-sized earthquake. It would likely take about two hours for a tsunami sea-level rise to reach our county, which provides time to evacuate low areas, and the water rise would be likely less severe than in areas closer to the Pacific Ocean.

That said, we would face enormous challenges if we had the “big one.” Conducting successful life-saving and life-sustaining response operations in the aftermath of a huge earthquake will hinge on the effective coordination and integration of governments at all levels — cities, counties, state agencies, federal officials, the military, tribal nations — as well as non-governmental organizations and the private sector.

One of the primary goals of Cascadia Rising is to train and test our whole-community approach to complex disaster operations together as a joint team. In Whatcom County, we will spend the first six months of 2016 planning to operate our Emergency Coordination Center for 36 hours straight June 7-8 to simulate what would happen if we had to respond to an emergency of this magnitude.

City systems

Many Bellingham departments are participating in Cascadia Rising, including fire, police, public works, the library, human resources, information services, legal, the Whatcom Museum and the mayor’s office. Each of these departments will participate at either the Emergency Coordination Center or within their department. We will use this exercise as an opportunity to review our roles in the city’s comprehensive emergency management plan and prepare ourselves and our loved ones through family preparedness in the effort to make our community more resilient.

It will take all of us — emergency responders, neighbors, businesses and governments — to keep our community safe and to help after a disaster. To learn more about neighborhood preparedness and what you and your family can do to prepare for an emergency, please visit the Whatcom Unified website at whatcomready.org.

Paul Gazdik is Bellingham’s emergency manager. This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville to provide to share updates about City of Bellingham issues and projects. She invites citizens to contact her at 360-778-8100 or mayorsoffice@cob.org.

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