City prepares for earthquake aftermath
October 12, 2010
By Warren Kagarise
The disaster — a magnitude 6.7 earthquake — struck the region less than 48 hours earlier, during rush hour at 7:54 a.m. on a Tuesday.
The temblor triggered landslides on steep slopes, damaged Interstate 90 through Issaquah, snapped mains and compromised the drinking water supply, and toppled cargo cranes at the Port of Seattle — a critical link to deliver food and fuel to Issaquah and the region.
Police received unconfirmed reports of looters pilfering a local drugstore. Debris, another headache for emergency responders, piled up on curbsides throughout Issaquah.
In the moments after the shaking stopped, city employees filed into the Emergency Operations Center, a map-lined room deep inside the Public Works Operations Building, to coordinate the response to the catastrophe.
The earthquake, of course, did not happen.
But emergency planners in Issaquah and throughout King County spent Oct. 6-7 in the midst of a disaster drill, called Sound Shake, to prepare for a destructive temblor.
“If we can be prepared for an earthquake, we can be prepared for anything,” Issaquah Emergency Coordinator Steve Campbell said.
The detailed scenario — conducted almost a decade after the magnitude 6.8 Nisqually earthquake rattled Western Washington — was crafted to include projected damage, mock TV news reports and a flurry of phone calls from other agencies, residents and journalists.
Cities and other local agencies lead the response to disasters. In Issaquah, the Emergency Operations Center serves as the nerve center during a crisis.
In order to test another component of disaster response, the city opened a shelter at the Issaquah Valley Senior Center in the late afternoon of Oct. 6.
The fictional damage to the interstate caused epic gridlock, because traffic had to detour on Issaquah roads from Front Street North to state Route 900. The emergency shutdown of the port caused supplies to dwindle.
Bret Heath, Public Works Operations and emergency management director, said the realistic conditions helped city staffers prepare.
“It’s a lot of work, but it is rewarding and it is, in its own way, it’s fun,” he said.
Planners gathered the day after the drill concluded to assess the response. Heath described the exercise as a success, but said city staffers asked for more disaster-response training.
“There was a lot of, ‘We need more training,’” he said. “People want to feel more comfortable in their positions, especially staff that’s pulled in from other departments that aren’t normally involved in emergency management.”
Headed for safety
Evacuees of all ages — in reality, dozens of Issaquah Citizens Corps members — filed into the Issaquah Valley Senior Center just before sunset Oct. 6.
The earthquake left residences throughout Issaquah and the surrounding area uninhabitable, and the group sought refuge at a makeshift shelter downtown.
“We’re getting through the line as quickly as we can,” shelter staffers reassured the crowd.
The ersatz evacuees had to complete paperwork and list contact information — mundane-but-critical steps — before they could enter the shelter. Inside, city Parks & Recreation Department employees set up cots in a corner and shelter staffers laid out cheese pizza for drill participants.
Joe Decuir, a Community Emergency Response Team member and drill participant, said the exercise offered important lessons about responding to a disaster.
“It’s surprising how much you can’t imagine until you actually try to do it,” he said.
Heath, a walkie-talkie clipped to the waistband of his jeans and a digital camera in his hand, darted through the senior center to observe the drill.
He credited Sound Shake organizers for adding lifelike details to the drill.
“They’re trying to create a somewhat realistic scenario and to drive certain outcomes,” he said later.
The ongoing effort included drills — such as a structural collapse drill and a pet-shelter exercise — throughout the spring and summer to prepare officials and volunteers for a worst-case scenario.
“What we’re trying to do is practice doing things right and, if mistakes are made, correcting those, so they won’t be made during a real emergency,” state Emergency Management Division spokesman Mark Clemens said. “It’s a good way to train new people up and show them how the operation works, and it’s equally valuable to grizzled veterans.”
Brenda Bramwell, Issaquah Citizen Corps Council president, said the unpredictable nature of the Sound Shake drills helped members of the group prepare for a real disaster. The group is part of a national program to encourage emergency preparedness at the neighborhood level.
“Even if it’s an exercise, we try to inject some surprises for them to learn from,” Bramwell said.
The latest exercise came as a follow-up to a 2008 drill. In the course of the last Sound Shake exercise, participants tested the response plans in place for the same day as a strong earthquake.
Decuir, the CERT member at the shelter, credited planners for the frequent planning exercises.
“The earthquakes don’t give a damn about our actual preparedness,” he said.