Imagine being on a rural island when a major earthquake hits off the coast. After five minutes of shaking that registers 9.0 on the Richter scale, devastation is all around. Food, water, medicine and fuel are in short supply. Along with power and phone service outages, all bridges and ferry connections are down.
That’s the likely scenario for 10,000 residents of Puget Sound’s Vashon Island. As part of the Cascadia Rising earthquake drill, troops from the Washington National Guard have set up camp on Vashon, to test their readiness plans and to practice integrating with local authorities.
Park Becomes Supply Lifeline
This week at Vashon’s Jensen Point, a picturesque waterfront park that’s normally used as a boat launch for kayaks and sailboats was transformed. Military personnel lined up on the beach. First they laid out sandbags, as two large grey tugs loomed offshore, pulling a barge full of equipment. The tugs slowly maneuvered the causeway onto the shore, then unfurled a metal ramp onto the beach, so a convoy of trucks and Humvees could roll in without damaging the local shoreline.
Major Angela Halvorson with the Army National Guard says delivering this barge full of troops and supplies to the island is no easy task.
“While that sounds like a simple maneuver, it’s actually quite challenging,” she said. “They have to wait for the tides, they’ve got to make sure that they’ve got it lined up correctly, that it’s stable to drive those vehicles off, onto the shore and then up into the parking lot and out of here.”
The Washington National Guard set up a temporary command center a few miles down the highway, where several large tents and a containerized field kitchen filled an old missile site at Sunrise Ridge. Several generators powered satellite-based computer systems and helicopters delivered dignitaries on Monday afternoon.
Everyone Pitching In
As imposing as the sudden military presence might look to islanders, Halvorson says the National Guard is there to help. They’re not occupying the island; they’re taking orders from local authorities.
“We would be called upon by the civilian authorities to support their operations,” she said. “In an exercise like this and in the real world scenario, the civilians would be the lead and we would be there to back them up and support them with our logistics and operational capabilities that the National Guard trains for.”
Also out on the beach, watching the National Guard’s convoy roll in, is a leader of the local response.
“After two years of work, it’s just an incredible thrill to see this happening,” said Rick Wallace, the president of Vashon Be Prepared. He’s also the volunteer manager of the island’s emergency response center and designer of the drill scenario, which assumes the community would be cut off from its normal supply lines for at least 10 days.
“So if we really were isolated and the ferries weren’t working, what would be on board here would be what you see here, but also, it would make repeated trips. And it would bring containers full of food, medicine, giant generators that would allow us to keep operating here, because our electricity would be out,” Wallace said.
They’ll be working with a network of about two dozen volunteer ham radio operators, who have trained in how to get email up and running via their amateur radio signals. “So we can send complicated lists of materials that we need, the number of pallets of MREs that we need, avoid confusion of the spelling of a pharmaceutical, that sort of thing,” he said.
Additional military exercises on the island this week include distribution of food and water and practice drills to load the critically wounded onto medevac helicopters. Wallace says as much as anything, it’s about practicing communication with new coworkers, when normal systems are down.
“Being able to understand each other’s culture, each other’s language and practice working together, it’s ... unbelievably valuable,” Wallace said.
Local Radio Makes It Sound Real
Also taking part in the drill is the island’s low-power FM radio station, Voice of Vashon, which has been broadcasting earthquake emergency safety advisories all week, interspersed with disclaimers, reminding listeners that it’s just an exercise.
On Tuesday morning, the station broadcast a blow-by-blow live description of what it would be like during the first five minutes of the earthquake. The descriptions were vivid and frightening.
“Two minutes in: major damage now. The Earth still shaking violently -- will it ever stop? Paving on the ferry docks is rupturing, pilings are separating from the deck, we don’t realize it yet, but Vashon has been isolated. No ferry service for weeks to come…”
“Imagine this: now you’ve got bookcases falling. Now you’ve got grocery store stock falling to the floor. As shelves begin to tip over, they’re spilling syrup and canned foods everywhere. Insecticide containers at the hardware store and lumber yard are falling to the floor. Will they break open? We are at two and a half minutes of shaking thus far…”
Susan McCabe is the station manager and also the host of the live coverage. She says they’re practicing how to inform the community, with real-time scenarios.
“We call ourselves the virtual town square. And our format is all Vashon, all the time. So when it comes to a disaster, we plan to be the information lifeline,” she said.
This week, along with the simulated emergency bulletins, they’re bringing updates that trickle in from the island’s command center, about all kinds of knock-on effects from the quake, such as landslides, house fires, road closures and power outages.
“And power out in our case on Vashon Island for as long as three weeks until people get to us. We are isolated. That’s the unique situation that we are in, which I believe has stimulated some of the best disaster preparedness for our community, in the country,” McCabe said.
That’s part of why they were selected by the National Guard for this exercise.
Residents Still Not Ready
But despite the island’s relative preparedness, an informal poll outside Vashon’s popular Thriftway grocery store indicated more preparedness is needed. Nearly every person I asked said they’re not really ready for the big one, when it hits.
‘We have list of things at home that we are going to do, but it’s still a list,” said Chris Plihal. “I guess we need to get serious about it.”
“If you’re talking a nine point something – I’m not sure you’re ever really ready for one of those,” said Jim Symbol. “I have a small boat, maybe I could get off to Tacoma by myself.”
“It’s scary, isn’t it? To know that one day something will happen – and you don’t know when that will be. I think that we should be prepared, but I’m not,” said Sandra Furniss.
Public officials are urging residents all over the region to take this drill as a reminder that there’s no time like the present to get their personal earthquake plans in place. They say it’s not a matter of if the Cascadia Subduction Zone ruptures, but when.