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Authorities Tallying Lessons Learned From Cascadia Rising Exercises

Parker Miles Blohm
An Oshkosh truck disembarks the barge onto Jensen Point during last month's Cascadia Rising earthquake drill. The National Guard would help bring food, medicine and other supplies to Vashon in case ferry service to the island is disrupted.

Emergency Management offices around the state are analyzing the data collected during last month’s Cascadia Rising earthquake and tsunami drill. They say the four-day exercise did just what it was supposed to: uncover strengths and weaknesses of preparedness plans for a massive earthquake off the West Coast.

The scenario was for a full-rip 9.0 earthquake along the subduction zone off the West Coast, followed by a devastating tsunami. The four-day drill tested the preparedness plans of agencies at every level of government in three states plus British Columbia.

Chuck Wallace is the deputy director of Emergency Management forGrays Harbor County, where the exercise included decontamination and search-and-rescue drills with the Washington National Guard. But Wallace says there’s nothing like actually testing the software and equipment the state Military Department would use to get things like internet and cell phone service back up and running. They do that via ham radios.

“What we realized was that some of their connectivity to us didn’t work. And my radio guys are very adept at what they do,” Wallace said.  “We were teaching each other, back and forth, which is – if you don’t actually get to exercise it, you never find out where you need to upgrade, on both sides.”

He says communication is the number one priority in these events, so uncovering those barriers is essential.

One simple lesson they learned was the need for an emergency, web-based email account that could be used for county messaging, even when all systems are down.  He says he’d also like to see more ham radios and train more operators in his coastal county.  

In a more rural setting, Vashon Island has been highlighted as one of the best examples of a well-prepared community. Knowing they would be cut off if ferry service goes out , which is expected,  volunteers there have worked hard to get ready. But Rick Wallace, the president of the VashonIsland Be Prepared group and a local controller for the Cascadia Rising drill, says he has an inch-high stack of paper feedback forms he’s still going through -- evidence of all the things they’ll need to do better in the event of a massive earthquake along the subduction zone. He says there is a lot to do, but one theme rises to the top for his rural community.

“We need more people,” Wallace said. “It’s unthinkable in our little small community – despite our huge participation – unthinkable that we would be able to go for weeks, 24 hours a day. And that’s what would be required in this scenario.”

He says they had 150 volunteers and their training paid off. They worked well together and with other agencies to solve problems as they came up, even without phones or internet.

But they were exhausted after just four days. So they’re aiming to triple the team and move the command center to a larger space with more current technology.  Wallace, who was one of 25 ham radio operators in the Vashon group, says even though he’d been imagining the situation for years, he was struck by how quickly everyone ran out of fuel.

“There were counties all around us reporting that they were out of fuel – no fuel,” Wallace said. “You can’t move food, you can’t move water, you can’t move people, rescue workers, you can’t fly airplanes, you can’t have boats, unless you have fuel. And transportation is the heartbeat of trying to recover from something this terrible.”

As authorities up and down the coast are improving their preparedness plans, they’re also reminding individuals to do the same; It’s recommended that everyone aim to stockpile an emergency supply of food, water and medicine to last at least 14 days.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to