My co-workers and I spent last week pretending to respond to a giant earthquake as part of the Pacific Northwest's Cascadia Rising drill. Our main takeaway? When a 9.0 earthquake hits, it will be a challenging – and slow – recovery. And everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, needs to do more to prepare.
Here's just some of what we faced as part of the drill:
- Large pieces of Interstate 5 collapsed or were blocked in King, Pierce and Thurston counties, cutting off the state's main north-south route; alternate routes also were disrupted
- 72 bridges collapsed; another 47 were unstable or otherwise closed
- 103 state roads were closed; another 56 had restrictions due to damage or debris; roads to the grocery store, gas station or medical facilities or trauma centers were not passable
- Injured passengers spent the night on ferries that had to head to deep water to avoid tsunami danger
- Bainbridge Island residents had to shelter in place because the ferries were not in service and the Agate Pass Bridge was closed.
- Coastal communities were flooded; coastal highways were washed away in a tsunami or covered by landslides.
- A massive mile-and-a half landslide and a separate bridge collapse on Interstate 90 left the state's main east-west route closed indefinitely; landslides on other passes meant that even with crews working around the clock it would take four days until an east-west emergency vehicle route was re-established
- There was no public access to state roads: Officials needed the public to stay off roads so crews could safely clear debris, make repairs and establish detour routes for emergency responders
Sound impossible to tackle? It certainly felt like that at times. Any one of the above emergencies would require a major response on a normal day -- and these would happen all at once in a 9.0 earthquake. That's why disaster preparation is so critical.
WSDOT Priorities: Life-Safety Emergency Access
Our mission at WSDOT is to keep people and goods moving. After a devastating disaster like a Cascadia-level quake, life-safety access becomes our first priority. Our crews must focus on clearing routes for first responders and other essential vehicles. What's essential?
- Emergency vehicles including police, fire or medical;
- Commercial vehicles containing emergency supplies;
- Local utility and public works vehicles;
- Public agencies and associated personnel responding to the incident
That means all public traffic is halted – even for the very understandable response of wanting to try and reach loved ones. On day three of the drill we had participants asking when roads would be reopened to the public. The answer? Not for a while. Restoring emergency access was a massive undertaking on its own. Much as we'd like to, there's no way to quickly recover from such devastating destruction.
|Our staff at the Headquarters Emergency Operations Center double check information about earthquake damage and response|
during the Cascadia Rising Drill. Verifying damage and resources was key to responding quickly.
When the Skagit River Bridge was knocked into the river in 2013, for example, we marshaled the agency's forces to have a temporary replacement in place within 27 days. It was hailed as a major accomplishment and we were justly proud of the effort – but it still was a matter of weeks, not days. And it wasn't competing with hundreds of other road, bridge and ferry terminal repairs.
Recovery from a Cascadia-type event will be a marathon, not a sprint.
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
What does this mean for you?
As hard as emergency crews will be working, the reality is people should prepare to fend for themselves for up to two weeks after a 9.0 earthquake. A Cascadia event will cause unimaginable devastation. You're not going to be able to drive to the store, or hospital or gas station. Personal preparation will be key to survival. Neighborhoods are going to need to band together and take care of each other as crews work to establish even rudimentary emergency access.
It's not that emergency crews won't be working around the clock to help, but the sheer magnitude of the work will be overwhelming and take time.
|A map showed road closures, damaged bridges, alternate routes, damaged ferry terminals and other information.|
Here are some initial steps to make sure you and your family are better prepared:
- Create a family emergency communication plan, including an alternate meeting place and an out-of-state contact you can all check in with if separated during evacuations
- Have an emergency supply kit, including seven to 10 days of food and water per person on hand (the recommendation of a “normal” emergency is two to three days, but you'll need more for a Cascadia-style disaster)
- Make plans to shelter in place at work or school – it may not be possible to return to home
- Search emergency preparedness sites for even more tips and information
Seem overwhelming? Set a goal of stocking one new emergency kit item during your weekly or monthly grocery store run. This lets you chip away at the task over time. The sooner you start, the more prepared you are for both small and large emergencies.
Why We Drill
Drills like Cascadia Rising identify frightening realities, but they're not meant as scare tactics. They're essential tools to help us identify gaps or areas for improvement, which makes us more prepared for real emergencies.
|A simulated social media platform allowed communications staff from several agencies to respond|
to comments and questions and monitor media reports.
Drills also give us valuable exposure to our cohorts in law enforcement and emergency response. Cascadia Rising was the largest drill ever conducted in the Pacific Northwest with 20,000 people taking part. Invaluable relationships have been formed between city, county, state and federal agencies and with that a better understanding of everyone's roles and capabilities.
Do we still have work to do? Absolutely, and we are always striving to improve. But thanks to everyone's efforts last week, the Pacific Northwest is more prepared for a large earthquake than ever before.
Personally, this drill has identified several items I plan to add to my own emergency supply kits. I've heard others make similar comments. I hope it does the same for you – even if the next Cascadia-level quake is 100 years away, every bit of preparation we do now will pay untold dividends during our next emergency.