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Cascadia Rising Earthquake Drill Will Test Northwest Readiness For 'The Big One'

Since 2013, Braun has led a team putting together a military response plan should an earthquake and tsunami happen in Washington state, as part of federal, state and military preparation for the "Big One" along the Cascadia Subduction Zone.
Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
Lt. Col. Clayton Braun, of the Washington State Army National Guard, at Camp Murray in Washington state in front of a slide showing areas that would be vulnerable to tsunamis after a massive earthquake.

A massive, four-day earthquake drill kicks off Tuesday in the Pacific Northwest.  The region is ripe for what officials say could be the biggest natural disaster the nation has ever seen. The exercise, called ‘Cascadia Rising,’ will test the readiness of responders at all levels of government.

The scenario is the worst case: a magnitude-9 earthquake due to a full rupture of the fault line beneath the shifting tectonic plates of the West Coast’s Cascadia Subduction Zone, which extends nearly 700 miles, from British Columbia to Northern California.  

“This could be five minutes of severe shaking out there on the coast,” said Scott Zaffram, a lead exercise planner with FEMA’s local Region 10 office.

“Where you know it’s pulling down shelves in the grocery stores. You’ve got movement of the ground where perhaps the roads split, landslides, hazardous oil spills, flooding,” he says.

And then, 15 to 20 minutes after the earthquake, a tsunami would hit the coast, with waves ranging from 20- 80 feet high.

“We know that for this scenario the tsunami is where most of our fatalities are probably going to originate from,” Zaffram said.

They expect 10,000 to 13,000 people would be killed, he says. The extreme scenario goes on, with an estimated 65-70 percent of major highway bridges damaged, power outages and critical infrastructure offline.

Authorities agree that one of their biggest challenges will be communication across multiple jurisdictions. That’s why planners from all levels of government in three U.S. states (Washington, Oregon and Idaho) as well as British Columbia are taking part. They want to test the current plans and find areas for improvement, says Karina Shagren with the Washington State Military Department.

“We’re trying to make this as real life as possible. So for instance in our state emergency operations center, we will be bringing in state agency partners. It’s going to be overflowing with people and they will be testing their ability to communicate with our local jurisdictions and our federal partners, in an environment where communications systems are down.”

She says they’ll have ham radios and satellite phones as backup.  

At the same time, the National Guard will conduct military field exercises, testing everything from search and rescue to supply delivery and decontamination procedures.

It total, about 20,000 people are involved in the “Cascadia Rising” exercise. It continues through Friday.  

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