Friday, July 12, 2019

Are you ready? Today’s earthquake is a reminder to get prepared

By Kris Rietmann

Thousands near Monroe, Washington, woke to shaking this morning. Not the best way to start the day and with the California quakes on people's minds, it is certainly a reminder to prepare yourself and your family.

Immediately following today's (July 12) earthquake, DOT crews were in action almost as soon as the shaking stopped. Our bridge team inspected bridges from Seattle to Monroe looking for broken concrete, cracks, alignment and damaged welding.

Many of you have asked if our agency is prepared to swing into action. We wanted to respond to some common questions and send out a reminder: none of us can become complacent about our earthquake risk or the long road to recovery after a truly massive quake.

Will WSDOT be able to make repairs quickly?

The quick answer is yes, we have emergency response plans and train regularly. The longer answer is it depends a lot on the location and severity of the quake.

We have employees and technology that will begin inspections almost as soon as the ground stops shaking. Our goal is to restore essential services as soon as possible, and in some cases that could be a matter of days depending on damage. In other situations, including a very large 9.0 magnitude earthquake, our bridges are designed not to collapse, but still may need repairs or even to be rebuilt before traffic can return.

In the greater Puget Sound region, we have many bridges and older multi-story buildings vulnerable to earthquakes. The severity and location of damage – and how much effort is needed to rescue or transport the injured – will drive many of the initial decisions about which road repairs are prioritized.

Because older bridges are vulnerable to earthquakes, we've spent more than $195 million retrofitting more than 400 bridges in the past two decades. Our newer structures, such as the State Route 520 bridge and the SR 99 tunnel, are built to current seismic standards to make them far more resilient to earthquake damage. In conjunction with the state Office of Emergency Management, we've also focused much of our recent bridge retrofit work on creating a lifeline route both north-south and east-west, which might help crews bring in supplies and emergency help after an earthquake.

Emergency repairs versus construction projects

There is a big difference between emergency repairs and construction projects and it's not an "apples to apples" comparison with normal construction or maintenance work.

Emergency repairs can also be accomplished more quickly because bidding, public notice and environmental reviews are suspended and often the entire road is closed – so crews don't have to set up traffic control or work with vehicles passing in nearby lanes. When Alaska had its earthquake last November, officials in Alaska said initial work was more of a "Band Aid" fix, with more substantial work planned for the summer. "We're slapping bandages on this damage so we can keep people and goods moving on our roadways. We'll come back later and make it right, but it will take longer," Alaska officials tweeted. "The work being accomplished right now is 100% incredible, amazing, awesome, and impressive. But it's less miracle, more just a ton of hard work." (We did the same thing after the Skagit River Bridge was damaged, quickly putting a temporary bridge in place to restore traffic flow but later installing a permanent, long-lasting replacement).

What should I do if I'm driving during an earthquake?

Maximilian Dixon, the earthquake program manager at the Washington Emergency Management Division, says your best bet is to stay calm and pull over.

The tell-tale signs of an earthquake could be others you see on a street reacting to the earthquake. Maybe trees are moving and cracks are opening on the road or sidewalks. Drive slowly to the side of the road, stop the car and set the parking brake.
  • If a power line falls on your car, call 911 and wait for expert help or follow power utility advice on what to do next.
  • Make sure to avoid overpasses, bridges, power lines, signs and other hazards and stay inside your car.
  • If you are on the coast and can get out of your car safely, do so and start heading for high ground if you are in a tsunami hazard zone. Look for tsunami evacuation signs to guide you. Don't wait for the sound of a siren or an official warning because the earthquake itself might be the only warning you get. You might need to leave your car behind if there is debris on the road and no way to safely drive to high ground. In this case, find a safe place to park your car and start walking.
  • You should keep a "go" kit in your vehicle for these kinds of incidents (or if you become isolated because of winter weather). Make sure your kit has food and water, a first aid kit, a flashlight, comfortable clothes and shoes, and more.
Preparation is paramount

The state Emergency Management Division urges all residents to have two weeks of supplies for their family and be prepared to check on neighbors after a large earthquake. If roadways are damaged, emergency crews will have difficulty reaching some areas and it could be some time before regular traffic and visits to grocery stores, etc., are restored.

Here are some initial steps to make sure you and your family are better prepared:

Seem overwhelming? Set a goal of stocking one new emergency kit item during your weekly or monthly grocery store run. The sooner you start, the more prepared you are for both small and large emergencies.