Lessons learned from Cascadia Rising: Be prepared, more volunteers needed

After participating in last week's regional earthquake exercise, leaders in the island's emergency preparedness community say it is clear just how cut off from help Vashon would be in such an emergency, that personal preparedness is essential and that more volunteers are needed to improve the island's ability to respond.

After participating in last week’s regional earthquake exercise, leaders in the island’s emergency preparedness community say it is clear just how cut off from help Vashon would be in such an emergency, that personal preparedness is essential and that more volunteers are needed to improve the island’s ability to respond.

“The sense of being isolated by a regional disaster was shocking,” said Rick Wallace, who heads Vashon Emergency Operations Center (EOC) team and designed Vashon’s portion of the exercise. “We have always known intellectually that that the ferries would be disrupted, but we never understood at our gut level how isolated we would be even with ferries running. Resources simply will not be available.”

More than 20,000 people throughout the region participated in Cascadia Rising, which was based on a 9.0 earthquake off the coast and an ensuing tsunami. On Vashon, several members of Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) took part, as did 150 volunteers and some 80 men and women from the National Guard. From last Tuesday through Friday, through exercises and in a simulation, they assessed damage to the island, responded to the most severe emergencies, requested resources from King County, worked closely with the military and planned for recovery. Throughout the exercise, Voice of Vashon frequently provided updates about what was transpiring in the community: a litany of disaster based on the science of what could easily transpire: Vashon Community Care evacuated because of damage to the building, water systems out in Burton in Dockton, no phone service or electricity to the island, fuel depleted by day four, the collapse of the Burton store, communities cut off because of landslides, fire at a Puget Sound Energy transformer, a prolonged aftershock. Throughout the region, the picture was bleak: some 17,000 dead, 25,000 injured and 1 million misplaced.

It is against this backdrop that Wallace framed the situation for islanders.

“If rail is down, if the port is down, if I-5 and 405 are down, the whole region would run out of fuel and food,” he said. “On Vashon it would be even worse than we imagined.”

Unlike in this drill, when the National Guard arrived in advance of the earthquake, help for the island would be weeks out. Moreover, he said, King County, with 60 jurisdictions asking for assistance, would be quickly overwhelmed,

“Everyone will be overwhelmed,” he added.

While the picture was indeed grim, there were many positives to engaging in the exercise, those involved say.

On the final day of the exercise, VIFR Fire Chief Hank Lipe called it a great week and noted that considerable progress had been made in understanding the “business of bureaucracy” — what collaborating partners’ resources and roadblocks are — and in developing a long-term sustainability plan for the island.

“It boils down to a half dozen basic needs: water, food, fuel, medicine, shelter and transportation of critical patients. We have to keep striving … to be able to set up that supply chain in the event the ferries disappear.”

He, too, stressed that, in a real scenario, help to the island will not arrive quickly.

“Relief is going to be very slow coming, and we have to stay vigilant to prepare ourselves to be self-sustaining,” he said.

Wallace concurred.

“One of the big learnings from the exercise is what we have known all along,” he said. “There is no substitute for having a couple weeks of food and water at your house. If you want to be in control, to take care of your family and animals, you have to be ready.”

The exercise also provided benefits to the island simply because of all the preparation that went into it. John Cornelison, long involved with disaster planning on the island, managed the EOC for the duration of the drill and noted that the event provided an important deadline and spurred action among many of those involved.

“There is nothing like an actual exercise to tackle to-do lists and get stuff done,” he said. “It materially advances island readiness every time we have a drill.”

Among the tasks accomplished was setting the routes Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteers traveled to assess and report damage with the assistance of several of the island’s ham radio operators. CERT members had not practiced the exercise before, and group leader Jan Milligan said it went well, but some adjustments will be made.

“Now we need to go from good to great,” she added.

For the first time, volunteers also took to the water to check on their neighbors as part of a new group called the Marine Emergency Response Team (MERT), headed by Jim Hauser. On Vashon, he said, there are 33 waterfront communities accessed by a single road that passes through a likely slide zone, and the communities could easily be isolated if the road is blocked. In all, he said, 15 boats are organized to check on those communities, and last Thursday, a portion of those boats — and their owners — participated, with one of the boats anchoring off a home in Gold Beach and sending a dinghy to shore to deliver water purification tablets and receive a Neighborhood Emergency Response Organization (NERO) report about the condition of upper and lower Gold Beach.

Currently, Hauser said, MERT members are not not supposed to use marine radio communication to talk to shore-based stations such as the EOC, and the group used ham radio for that communication.

“This is one of those organizational quirks that Cascadia Rising is designed to suss out and fix,” he added.

Cascadia Rising ran from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. last Tuesday through Friday, and inside the fire station, large numbers of volunteers were at work all four days. In the EOC, there were roughly 30 people gathered in clusters around small tables tending to a myriad of central command tasks throughout the exercise, and in an adjoining small room, a team of ham radio operators provided vital communications, while down a long hall, the operations team responded to the most urgent matters — at times using a “runner” to take messages back and forth to the EOC.

Wallace noted that an improved facility would help tremendously. Currently, he said, he is hoping to obtain funding to improve the Penny Farcy Training Center across the street and provide a more “robust” emergency center there.

“The operations section would be a doorway away and not 20 meters down the hall,” he said, “and the communications room would be four times the size of our current closet, where four people work. This would be a tremendous boon to our ability to perform and work together,” he said.

With 150 people volunteering their time, Wallace estimates that most islanders know at least one person involved in the exercise, and he stressed more are needed to tend to a true disaster around the clock for several days or weeks. He and Lipe both encouraged islanders to get involved in any way that would best fit their interests: from CERT and MERT to the Medical Reserve Corps, to operating a ham radio or volunteering for the EOC team.

Last week, with the end of the drill just hours away, the fire station still thrumming with activity, Lipe gestured to the many volunteers still working on the disaster and its aftermath.

“The people today — at the grassroots level — will save lives in the future,” he said. “The work they have done this week will save people’s lives.”

To get involved with island disaster preparedness, email helpout@vashonbeprepared.org, or see the group’s website: vashonbeprepared.org.

For photos from the week, click here.