By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
On the long to-do lists that usurp most days for most people, it’s easy to let the maybes slide beneath the certainties.
Thanksgiving? Definitely a week and a half away.
Catastrophic earthquake? Could happen tomorrow … or not in your lifetime, or your children’s lifetimes, or their children’s lifetimes.
Still, about 200 people filled the auditorium at Hiawatha Community Center a week ago to start their weekend getting practical advice for getting ready for the latter.
It was a power-packed few hours, going beyond the standard advice you might have tuned out despite best intentions.
The longtime local volunteers of West Seattle Be Prepared and the West Seattle Emergency Communication Hubs were elated by the turnout. It was the second of two nearly identical weekend sessions they had organized, the first one a month earlier at High Point Community Center. They’re hoping to do it again in 2019. Before our toplines: Highlights from videographer Mark Jaroslaw:
The event provided more than preparedness advice – it gave a bigger view, too, as well as a behind-the-scenes window into how public servants are, and are not, getting ready:
KING 5 reporter Glenn Farley emceed, opening with an overview of where things stand in terms of earthquake science – such as Shake Alert – and how things are changing, not just technologically, but also in terms of preparedness recommendations: While Farley recalled the days of “3 Days, 3 Ways,” he noted that the advice now is to be ready to take care of yourself and your family for two weeks. In some areas of the region, in fact, people are advised to be ready to be on their own for a month.
Of course there was a safety briefing for participants – organizer Cindi Barker of West Seattle Be Prepared told everyone that in a building like Hiawatha, in an event configured like that one, if a quake happened, you would drop down between the chairs, then evacuate to the field.
Dave Nichols, (who you might know from his work with ShelterBox, though that’s not what he was there to discuss) spoke next. How ready is Nichols, who has a deep background in preparedness and disaster response? So ready that even his cat has a “go bag.” Showing a photo from a September quake in Japan, Nichols explained that damage isn’t just done by the shaking, but by what the quake does to the ground around it. Landslides are a big risk in much of our area, especially if a quake strikes during winter when the ground’s saturated. Seattle, he observed, is really an island – even I-5 south of the city is a raised deck – and all the infrastructure “can be compromised.”
What could go wrong after a quake (aside from the obvious damage)?
No electricity is a biggie. That means no lights, no cash (ATMs), no coffee, no gas pumps, no heat/AC. “What about people who need electricity to live?”
Who is going to rescue you?
1 first responder for every 218 people in Seattle – so YOU are your rescuer. “The most important plan is not the state’s, not the city’s – it’s YOUR plan.” Too many don’t have one, he said with humor, showing results of a survey asking people about their readiness for a Super Bowl party vs. their readiness for disaster.
Connect with your neighbors.
Know how you’re going to connect with your family if you’re in different areas when disaster strikes.
So you still don’t believe you need to be ready?
Sandi Doughton, a reporter at The Seattle Times and author of Full-Rip 9.0, The Next Big Earthquake in the Pacific Northwest, was the next person with a reminder of why you MUST be. She also confessed she enjoys disaster movies and showed a condensed version of WSDOT‘s infamous Alaskan Way Viaduct quake animation (as uploaded to YouTube by someone who also added cheesy ominous music).
Doughton said that there’s still a “deep vein of denial around here”; even though the quake simulated in the video seemed big, it was a “thousand times less powerful” than what’s possible. And no, we’re NOT safer than California – we’re actually susceptible to a greater variety of quakes. But nobody really realized that until the 1980s – when the Cascadia Subduction Zone was brought into focus while the never-finished Satsop nuclear-power plant was front and center. “The rule in earthquakes is the bigger the fault the bigger the quake, and there are no bigger faults on the planet than subduction zones.” This one had been quiet for a while so it was (erroneously) perceived as less of a threat, until a few decades ago (the backstory on that is in Doughgton’s book).
In the past 10,000 years, evidence suggests, there’ve been ~20 “full rip” quake – 8 to 9 magnitude – along the length of the subduction zone. Last one, 318 years ago. “That doesn’t mean we’re overdue” – but “it does mean it could happen any day … or it could happen when your grandkids have grandkids.” But then there are “deep quakes” like Nisqually in 2001, and “the USGS says we have an 85 percent chance of having another one of these in the next 50 years.”
She noted all the chimney damage in West Seattle during the Nisqually quake. West Seattle – as well as much of the rest of our area – is full of “old brick buildings” that are a major hazard in a big quake, as well as “old concrete buildings.” Utility systems are vulnerable too. In case people weren’t alarmed enough, she ran through the estimates of damage, then said “a lot can be done now to reduce the damage” so there’s no point in trying to ignore it.
There’s a 50-year plan that could show how to strengthen infrastructure – 2012’s “Resilient Washington State” – but she says it’s “getting no political traction.” Some other countries have not been so recalcitrant about their preparedness and they’ve survived major disasters in better shape, she said. They have a “culture of preparedness.” The state’s making some progress, Doughton acknowledged – 400 bridges retrofitted by the state, but 700 to go. But not all schools have been evaluated in the state, and she considers that “an outrage.” She says one legislator told her it hasn’t been a priority for him because he hasn’t had a single constituent bring it up. “So if this is important to you” – let your elected reps know.
After a break, Melanie Cole of the city Office of Emergency Management explained what her department does, and what the Emergency Operations Center downtown is for. They see themselves as “the concierge for the City of Seattle. …. If there is a situation that’s going to impact a lot of people …” their job is to bring together the experts, the people who need to be in the room, “get people together, face to face, have conversations, see how we can prioritize our response, share information … and go toward the recovery phase.”
Emergency management has four phases – preparedness, mitigation, response, recovery. They’re focused on “essential support functions.” When Coe invited questions, someone asked if the city is available to come to a condo or apartment building with a preparedness presentation. Yes – via SNAP, she said. “We will come to your living room.”
Another attendee observed that the OEM seemed understaffed. When Cole struggled with responding, WSBP’s Barker grabbed the mike and echoed a point Doughton had made – that’s up to politicians, and they say they don’t hear from their constituents about this.
Speaking of the city – Seattle Fire Station 29‘s Lt. Paul Andrews talked about the reality of how they would operate in a disaster, “the capability to operate on their own” without central 911 dispatch. Their radios would run as walkie-talkies. They would “start driving our earthquake route” after securing the utilities at their stations – something you need to know how to do at your own residence. “Out of the windshield of our fire truck, we’ll make an assessment of the damage we see” and they’ll report in to the battalion chief of West Seattle, who will then assess how they can “do the greatest amount of good” with what they have.
Be ready! he underscored, saying 10 five-gallon drums of water are kept at every SFD station and the day after the event, marking the end of Daylight Saving Time, they’ll get changed out at every station. He underscored, you have to have a plan. “Even if your plan is totally wrong, at least you have a starting point.”
Lt. James Britt from the Southwest Precinct picked up the SPD side of the story. Communications will be among the first casualties, he said. He cited an old military axiom, “No plan survives first contact”: For example, if there’s a major disaster, he said, the 7-minute response standard is “out the window,” no matter how hard they will try. Know your neighbors, know your neighborhood, so you can come together post-disaster. “A lot of this comes down to you as a community preparing for those events.” He said departments like SPD learned a lot from Hurricane Katrina and it’s led to some evaluation of things such as, how are they going to have police officers on duty when those on work or due to arrive at work are trying to figure out what’s up with their own families? So they’re working to set up resources that will attempt to help with that. The precincts are also set up for self-containment and while they will not turn away anyone who’s desperate, please don’t have “go to the police station” be your front-line plan.
“2 weeks is not unrealistic. 2 weeks is absolutely possible.” They will do the best they can to get around.
First question: Since roads might be blocked, what’s the plan for using boats in a disaster? That would be up to OEM.
Second question: If cell phones are down, how do you communicate? The lieutenant reiterated that walkie-talkies that don’t rely on a third party (tower relay, for example) are going to be most usable.
Carina Elsenboss from King County Public Health spoke next and outlined the department’s mission. She said they work with the Northwest Health Care Response Network regarding how they will communicate with hospitals post-disaster.
She also talked about past plans regarding setting up a non-hospital place for people to go to get health care. In tests, they found they could set it up – but couldn’t keep it staffed – and couldn’t figure out how to keep supplies from expiring.
So what does that mean for areas like ours where there’s no hospital?
“We want to hear more from you on this,” she said, saying the county is looking at how to use existing infrastructure such as clinics (like the CHI Franciscan, Swedish, and independent clinics that already exist) here and other “assets that exist in the community … a community-care-center model.” Next year, they’ll have “conversations about what this could look like” and she invited participation in discussions that would focus on what assets exist, and how care could be provided. Contact West Seattle Be Prepared to be part of this conversation – e-mail Barker at firstname.lastname@example.org. (She also suggested, “Ask your doctor what their plan is” … do they live in the community, will they be going to the clinic in case of disaster, etc.)
Next phase of the event: Skills training.
Cole showed how to shut off gas service. The most common cause of gas line problems in an earthquake is a gas appliance tipping and pulling the line. So seismically strapping your appliances in advance is a big preventive step you can take.
But – you need to keep this in mind: The only reasons to shut off your gas otherwise are if you smell gas, if you hear hissing, if you look at your meter and it’s spinning rapidly. You cannot turn your gas back on by yourself, so be sure you really want to turn it off. Do not in any circumstance try to turn it back on – the gas company is the only one who can do that. Cole showed a coated wrench that can be left at/near the meter in case you ever need it for turning off the gas. Don’t practice it – just know how to do it.
What if the leak is in the pipe in the ground? “Get as far away as you can,” Cole said. Are there other places you can shut off the gas – like, at the stove? Short answer: No.
Next, how to get water out of your water tank, since that may be the source of water you can use in case of catastrophe. “You can drain your hot-water heater if you need water,” said Cole. It could hold 100+ gallons. There’s a spigot on the heater and all you have to do is turn it. The first bit of water might have some sediment, but after that it should be usable. Turn off the hot water heater itself first. And also, be sure it’s seismically strapped down.
After her presentations, Scout Troop 282 presented on water purification, disaster sanitation, and disaster kits. They reiterated the 2-week-supply recommendation. Three essential things:
-water, 1 gallon per person per day
-lifesaving medicine – work with your doctor to get an extra supply of medication you’re taking that you can’t live without
-portable or crank-operated radio
-flashlight with extra batteries
-matches in a waterproof container
-utensils for consumption
-$100 person cash in small bills
-photocopies of important docs
-clothing and blankets
-recent pics of family members including pets so first respoders can help you find them
-glasses, hearing aids
-items for babies if relevant
-keep bag in accessible place so you can grab it and run out
Recommended for water purification – LifeStraw, other type of water filter, tablets, or even boil. If you have to disinfect with unscented bleach, six drops per gallon; stir it and let it stand for 30 minutes.
Two-bucket system for human waste: Label it. On a daily basis, spread the urine somewhere “larger than your shadow.” Poo is usually what makes people sick after a natural disaster, the Scouts said, so take two trash bags. When the bucket is half fill, put kitty litter or sawdust on top, take bags out, wear gloves, and tie up the bag for eventual (hopefully) pickup.
Wrapping up the training, Brian Nozynski provided a “MacGyver moment.” His message: You can do many things with a plastic bag – shelter, clothing, weather protection, even boots, so always have at least one with you. (An attendee clarified, the 95-gallon size is optimal.)
The morning concluded with an invitation to talk about hubs – the spots around the peninsula that volunteers are ready to set up in case of a disaster that disrupts regular communication channels:
If you do nothing else – know where your nearest hubs are. If none seem close, volunteer to get one going!