If a natural disaster hits the Mid-Columbia, would you and your loved ones be prepared to hunker down for at least three days?
Or if given just minutes to evacuate your home, do you have a stocked emergency supply kit in your vehicle and copies of all pertinent documents?
A story published in The New Yorker in July got people across the Northwest talking about the Cascadia subduction zone and the potential for a megaquake that could wipe out everything west of Interstate 5 and have ripple effects to the east.
The wildfires that consumed almost 1 million acres in Washington this summer forced hundreds of residents to flee as flames consumed their neighborhoods and, in many cases, all of their possessions.
A catastrophe can strike at any moment.
That is why emergency management officials encourage people to come up with a plan and practice now instead of waiting until it is too late.
“By doing things on a regular basis, we hope that folks kind of catch the preparedness bug,” said Mark Stewart, spokesman for the Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division.
“Five minutes after something happens is kind of the wrong time to figure out, ‘Gee, where is my water going to come from? Do I have enough food in the house? Is my house safe to be in? How do I contact family members?’”
September is National Preparedness Month. Organizers of a public service campaign for nearly 13 years have sought to educate and empower Americans to be ready in the event of an emergency, including natural and man-made disasters.
The campaign wraps up in a few days, but emergency management officials say that doesn’t mean the conversation should end.
Also, the 2015 Great Washington ShakeOut is just around the corner.
At 10:15 a.m. Oct. 15, people are asked to “Drop, cover and hold on.”
For four years, the state has been involved in the international initiative aimed at getting families, schools, businesses and organizations to prepare for a future emergency disaster.
In this case, the focus is an earthquake drill, but people should be ready for anything: floods, wildfires, power outages and even a volcanic eruption.
Participants are asked to register at shakeout.org/washington so they can be counted in the drill and serve as motivation for others. At last count, 800,000 people had signed up online. More than 1 million participated in 2014.
The drill involves crawling under a desktop, table or another piece of sturdy furniture and holding on for one minute as if an earthquake were occurring. Stay away from windows and walls where things may break and fall, and never run outside because of the risk of the building’s facade crumbling down, Stewart said.
Then, people are asked to take one additional step in getting ready, like assembling a disaster kit, creating a family plan and emergency call list, or updating your insurance and checking financial documents.
The drill is an honor system, so state officials trust you’re going to follow through with your pledge. If people are not available at the designated time, they can select another day during October.
“If we get schools participating, we get kids used to doing preparedness types of activities. Our hope is that they also take that message home to mom and dad and say, ‘Hey, what are we doing here to prepare for the earthquake?’ or ‘What are we doing to prepare for a fire?’” said Stewart, who as a child in Portland during the Cold War used to have similar drills at school and home closing the curtains and taking cover in case of potential attacks.
“We want folks to get a bit of an understanding of what the earthquake hazard is here in Washington state and what they can do to prepare for earthquakes in the future. We’ve had them in the past, and we know they will occur in the future,” he said.
The Cascadia subduction zone is off the coast, extending from northern California north to Vancouver Island, Canada. This geologic system — with the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate diving underneath the North American tectonic plate — is the one that most worries Pacific Northwest officials about the potential for “the big one” and an ensuing tsunami.
Many Eastern Washington residents question if the megaquake happens, even if it is magnitude 9.0, will it really be felt this far inland?
Stewart points to the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, which was one of the largest recorded in state history at 6.8. The epicenter of the quake was Anderson Island, about 11 miles northeast of Olympia, but there was significant damage to facilities on the east side of the state with tremors felt in the Tri-Cities and Spokane.
Jeremy Beck, emergency manager for Benton County Emergency Management, said it’s tough to predict until it actually happens but knows that no matter what it will be “a bad day.”
“Just prepare for anything, because anything can have a big impact on your life,” he said.
Beck acknowledged that the Cascade Range does protect the Mid-Columbia a little from a major earthquake in Western Washington.
“We don’t have very much that happens here and people kind of get lackadaisical about being prepared,” he said. “I would say less than half, probably a third, of the people are prepared to where they need to be. To me, I always promote have a kit and have a plan; have the stuff you’re going to need for your and your family, whether you stay home or leave.”
Benton County Emergency Management is a division of Benton County Emergency Services, which also covers the Southeast Communications Center (SECOMM) for 911 calls. About two years ago, Benton and Franklin counties put in place CodeRED, a reverse 911 system that notifies people in case of an emergency and gives instructions.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, along with Washington and Oregon officials and the National Guard, for two years have been planning a full-scale exercise called Cascadia Rising. It will take place over four days in June 2016.
Eastern Washington will test its communication systems. In the event of a disaster, this side of the state could become a support network with staging areas for equipment, supplies and people to arrive before being dispatched into the catastrophe zone and for the evacuation of injured people.
An example of how emergency services might work with a major Western Washington quake is the recent forest fires. FEMA was able to muster a number of firefighting resources and teams from around the west and farther, and had them meet at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane until it was determined just where they were needed, Stewart said.
FEMA used to tell people to have food, water, supplies and shelter ready for the first 72 hours after a disaster, but discovered after the magnitude of disasters like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy that it can take longer for people to get necessary emergency aid.
“We’ve been pushing for people to be somewhat self-reliant,” said Sean T. Davis, director of Franklin County Emergency Management. When looking at those huge catastrophes that have happened across the United States, “no one is able to come in on a white horse and take care of things immediately.”
Being prepared will “help prolong the possibility of your survival and make it more comfortable for you,” he said. “We live in a pretty hazard-impervious area and the ones that we do get, like the heavy snow up in the Spokane area, they’re used to it. It’s these way out there, that only happen every 100 years, that will catch us.”
For more information:
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Washington Emergency Management Division
Benton County Emergency Management
Franklin County Emergency Management
American Red Cross
U.S. Geological Survey
Pacific Northwest Seismic Network
Build a disaster supply kit, including:
▪ 1 gallon of water per person per day, minimum 3 days
▪ Nonperishable food
▪ Battery-powered or hand-crank radio
▪ Flashlight and battery-powered lantern
▪ Extra batteries
▪ First aid kit
▪ Personal medications
▪ Personal hygiene items
▪ Important family documents (copies of identification and insurance policies)
▪ Blankets and clothes
Make a plan:
▪ Pick a household meeting place, both in your neighborhood and outside it.
▪ Set up an out-of-town contact; notify others of their name and number.
▪ Review emergency plans at work and/or school.
▪ Check your county’s emergency management website.
▪ Register for CodeRED community notification.