Chile quake a 'teachable moment' for Western WA



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Posted on March 1, 2010 at 6:17 PM

Updated Monday, Mar 1 at 6:57 PM

SEATTLE - In the new Seattle Emergency Operations Center, things are quiet. But like a loaded spring, the place seems ready for action.

Each table is dedicated to a specific job category, from police and fire to logistics and communications. One station is for a person to manage all the audio visual information, including TV news broadcasts from the region which project on giant screens around the room.

It's all about situational awareness because, in a massive disaster like an earthquake, first responders can be quickly overwhelmed. That's why emergency agencies from the federal to the local level promote the message that people need to be ready to survive for three days. That means having enough water, food, clothing, medical supplies, prescriptions, clothing, toilet paper, flashlights and radios to survive for three days.

Chile is an attention getter for the people who work in emergency management here, because that could be us. The same geological conditions of colliding tectonic crustal plates that brought you the magnitude 8.8 quake in Chile are at work in Western Washington. Scientists say a quake larger than Chile could hit here - try a magnitude 9-plus. The last one, based on the geological record, hit in the year 1700.

"This is what's known as a teachable moment," says Barb Graff, the Director of Emergency Management for the City of Seattle. "This is exactly the type of thing we could see in the Pacific Northwest."

What makes these kinds of disasters so problematic is that a megathrust quake is likely to rupture a fault line from off the coast of British Columbia, down the coast of Washington, Oregon and down to Cape Mendicino in Northern California. That means Seattle and its environs won't be able to rely on help from Portland or Vancouver, B.C. because they'll be in the same boat. Help will have to come from points east.

Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that a U.S. city can be overwhelmed by a mass casualty disaster. Out Katrina's lessons learned, the Department of Homeland Security targeted ten regions around the country for grant money to bolster local response. King, Pierce, Snohomish, Skagit, Thurston Mason and Kitsap and Island counties are one of those regions. Seattle's Department of Emergency Management is coordinating the effort.

Working groups in this multi-year effort include looking at a regional transportation plan to get first responders to where they're needed. That could be by boat on Puget Sound if the bridges are collapsed or deemed too dangerous. The group will look at sheltering people from their damaged homes, assess the needs of high risk populations and develop a regional volunteer and donation management plan.

How do you rescue people from collapsed buildings? That's in the plan, too. You'll likely see urban search and rescue teams from cities like Denver and further east flown to the area. The group will also bolster emergency triage and pre-hospital treatment and even a regional medical evacuation plan that includes ways to deal with people living in nursing homes.

For more information on disaster preparedness, check out these links: