Washington learns disaster prep lessons from Hurricane Irma

The Florida Keys couldn't be farther away from Washington State, but there is a lot the two will have in common with them following a huge earthquake along the Washington coast.

Major hurricanes and earthquakes couldn't be more different, but they have one key point in common—an aftermath.

When Hurricane Irma slammed into the Florida Keys on the weekend of September 9th, it left near unprecedented devastation in its wake.

Washington State Emergency Management Director, Robert Ezelle worries something similar could be in store for Washington given its position near the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which could cause a massive magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami. The zone runs between British Columbia and northern California.

"There are a lot of parallels between what we see in the Keys and what we're going to see here, it's just going to be on a much larger scale, much more widespread scale here in Western Washington, in particular our coastal communities,” said Ezelle. 

The common parts of the disaster is difficulty in reaching the damaged area. It's getting water and food and shelter to the survivors.

"What I see happening in the Florida Keys is very, very analogous to the situations we're going to be having in western Washington," said Ezelle.

In a massive June 2016 exercise named Cascadia Rising, the Washington Military Department conducted drills aimed at assessing Washington’s readiness for a major earthquake and tsunami.

Cascadia Rising was the largest drill ever conducted in Washington state, playing out over the course of a week that involved not only the National Guard, but active units of the U.S. Navy, county and state emergency planners, police and fire departments, more than 20,000 emergency officials overall.

But the conclusions of the drills weren’t pretty. Officials determined that that roads to the coast will be largely cut off, and there will simply not be enough helicopters available to quickly deliver emergency supplies.

As a result, the state is strongly recommending people have enough water, food, medicine and shelter to survive for at least two weeks before help can reach them.

The fact that the earthquake will come is not a mystery.  Scientists are learning more and more all the time, but the evidence of repeated large earthquakes on the Cascadia fault is undeniable. 

The last one occurred at 9 pm on January 26th, 1700. Scientists were able to nail down the time by calculating back from the time the Japanese recorded a large tsunami hitting their coast the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

 “We know the earthquake will come, but emergency planners from the state to the county and city level often find themselves arguing to be prepared for what to many is an abstract concept.  That's because the quake could come tomorrow or decades from now. " That's the big challenge, you don't have this big thing barreling down on you to motivate you do something," said Ezelle.  "You have to do it now based on the science, based on the information that you have." 

Only about 10,000 people remained in the string of Florida islands known as the Keys to ride out the storm.  The rest headed government urgings to evacuate.  People living in the northwest can get ready for the earthquake by having supplies on hand, and know the best way to head to higher ground when the shaking stops to avoid the incoming tsunami, which is expected to hit 20 to 30 minutes after the quake.  But unlike the hurricane, there will not be days to get ready or time to hit the hardware store for plywood and the grocery store for extra water and food.  The quake will come without warning.

"We as state directors are in regular contact with each other and sharing information," said Ezelle.  "And there will be a formal 'lessons learned' process that comes out of this."  

© 2017 KING-TV


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