Off the Press

June 26, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Preparing for worst-case scenario in Issaquah

Warren Kagarise
Press reporter

The earthquake existed only on paper and pixels for a brief span in early June, but the aftermath lingers.

Officials in local, regional, state and federal government participated in a drill, called the 2012 Evergreen Quake Exercise Series, to prepare for a devastating disaster in Issaquah and Western Washington.

The scenario for the exercise reads like the script for a disaster flick set in Issaquah.

The magnitude-6.7 earthquake rattled along the Seattle Fault at 8 a.m. Monday, June 4, as motorists surged on Interstate 90 and clogged city streets, en route to work and school.

The interstate turned impassable in a matter of seconds, as the exit to Front Street North and East Lake Sammamish Parkway Southeast crumbled.

In the aftermath, the grim toll in Issaquah reaches 31 dead and 821 injured. Mayor Ava Frisinger, in a news conference at still-standing City Hall, calls the disaster “a horrible tragedy for our community” and urges motorists to avoid ruined Interstate 90.

The transportation breakdown means Issaquah is overwhelmed by stranded employees from the largest employers in the city — Costco, Microsoft and Swedish/Issaquah. The extra people strain shelters and the hospital.

The scale of destruction outstrips the capacity for emergency responders and Community Emergency Response Teams.

Pets, escaped from homes or abandoned by owners in the aftermath, roam the streets.

Looters use the catastrophe — and stretched police force — as a chance to pillage local businesses.

From the Emergency Operations Center across town from City Hall, planners prepare for a helicopter to drop enough food and water for 50,000 people onto the field at Veterans’ Memorial Park.

Meanwhile, at a mock news conference at City Hall, many questions focused on how recovery efforts in Issaquah compared to efforts elsewhere in the region.

Then, in a tribute to ex-Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels’ decision to give the city a B for response to a December 2008 blizzard, I asked Frisinger what grade Issaquah municipal government earned for response to the fictional earthquake.

The mayor demurred.

“I don’t think that it’s appropriate to try to grade something in an emergency situation,” she offered.

The fictional magnitude-6.7 temblor outlined in the exercise is a bump in the road compared to the 1700 Cascadia earthquake.

Geologists peg the 1700 earthquake between magnitude 8.7 and 9.2 — for comparison,a magnitude-8.7 earthquake is about 16 times stronger than the cataclysmic 1906 San Francisco earthquake and about 1,000 times stronger than the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, the last major temblor to strike the Puget Sound region.

Outside magazine, in addition to naming Issaquah among the best places to live, last year ran a terrifyingly realistic piece about a modern-day Cascadia earthquake. The projected aftermath: more than 7,000 dead and more than $30 billion in damage across Washington and Oregon.

In Issaquah and elsewhere, emergency planners realize the need to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

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