Is Washington ready for the ‘Big One’? Experts say not yet

The Resilient Washington Subcabinet, a panel of state agency leaders and experts that has been meeting for nine months, provided Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday a draft report with recommended short- and long-term action items to bolster the state’s readiness in the face of a major earthquake.

Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, the adjutant general of the Washington State Military Department, talks to Gov. Jay Inslee about the subcabinet’s recommendations. (Official Governor’s Office photo)

Inslee noted the millions of people still without power in Puerto Rico, many without access to fresh drinking water, food or gasoline in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which tore through the island on Sept. 20.

The picture could be very similar or even worse for those across the Northwest, should a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake hit the region.

“We can see what the people of Puerto Rico are going through now,” Inslee said. “You understand how important it is to be able to provide clean water and food and medical supplies.”

Washington state has the second highest earthquake risk in the United States with a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake capable of generating a magnitude 9.0 or higher earthquake and tsunami. The most recent studies estimate 10,000 fatalities and direct economic losses of more than $80 billion combined for Washington and Oregon. Besides the Cascadia fault, there are additional earthquake faults across the state, which could go off without advance notice.

“Developing a state that is prepared for these impending natural disasters will significantly mitigate the damage they can cause to its people, property, economy and long-term survival,” the subcabinet’s report to the governor states.

Need for safer buildings, modernized communications system

Earthquake preparedness efforts require coordination and investment across the full spectrum of federal, state, local and tribal governments, private sector businesses, and individual households.

One of the recommendations for short-term action discussed by the subcabinet and governor was the need to complete an inventory of critical facilities, such as schools and hospitals. While some inventory has been completed, Washington is the only West Coast state without a complete inventory of critical facilities, something experts say is necessary to understand what kinds of resources are needed to help communities with retrofitting and new construction efforts.

The subcabinet also recommend additional funding for tsunami evacuation sites and quicker completion of tsunami inundation maps that identify coastal communities’ risks from deadly earthquake-caused tsunamis. Currently, there is one vertical tsunami evacuation site in Grays Harbor, the only such site on Washington’s coast. While design is underway for others, additional funding is needed to construct more.

Subcabinet leaders also outlined the need to deal with unreinforced masonry buildings — older brick buildings that are extremely likely to crumble in an earthquake — and schools in need of retrofitting. Officials say that California and Oregon started funding school retrofit programs in 2009 and say it’s likely Washington will need to do the same. The current state capital budget awaiting a vote by the state Senate includes $1.2 million for seismic assessment of schools.

Other recommendations touch on building code requirements for new schools and buildings, earthquake insurance and regional transportation systems.

Sue Bush from the state Department of Social and Health Services describes the challenges of developing preparedness and survival plans that can accommodate the elderly, those with disabilities, or other vulnerable populations. (Official Governor’s Office photo)

Inslee said he’s also concerned about communications systems. The current system in place relies on rudimentary radio relays and microwave relays, Washington Emergency Management Director Robert Ezelle said. A Request for Proposal is in the works to see what would be required to increase the capability so the state can have multiple, simultaneous conversations, and increase the reliability and survivability, Ezelle said.

“This is one place that is absolutely critical for the first two weeks and this is one place where you can significantly improve capability without doubling the state budget that will be extremely important,” Inslee said. “So, to me, this is something I would truly want to focus on.”

The subcabinet also asked the governor to create an office to coordinate and oversee the steps needed to come closer to resiliency.

“This is a beginning of this discussion and there will be many, many questions that we continue to develop, and what you’ve come up with jointly is just a beginning of this discussion,” Inslee said.

The importance of personal preparedness

Besides the devastation in Puerto Rico, as well as recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida, this month’s 7.1 earthquake in Mexico also hung heavy in the minds of subcabinet members.

“When you look at the images of destruction coming out of Mexico, it rings at my core, thinking that something like that could happen here and that very well could be us,” Ezelle said.

Maximilian Dixon, the earthquake program coordinator for the Washington Emergency Management Division, said that as the state works to get more prepared, the public needs to do its part, too.

Build kits — In Washington, it is important to be two-weeks ready. When disaster strikes, first responders must focus on rescuing those whose lives are most in danger or who are unable to care for themselves, such as the elderly or those with disabilities. By keeping a full supply of nonperishable food, water, first aid, medicine and other supplies, you’ll be better prepared to survive extended power and water outages and keep your family safe.

Learn more about what you should have in your “grab and go” kit in case a quick evacuation is needed; and what you should keep in your car kit. The public also needs at least two weeks of supplies in your house, on any budget. Start working on it a little bit at a time, and you’ll be surprised how easy it is to become prepared. You will be glad you set those resources aside, even when something smaller happens, like the next time the power goes out. Get prepared.

Practice — Drop, Cover and Hold on is the advice for what to do in case of an earthquake — regardless if you’re at the stadium of a Seahawks game and have to do it at your seat or home and can go under the kitchen table. Practice during the free, statewide earthquake drill the Great Washington ShakeOut at 10:19 a.m. on Oct. 19. Registration isn’t required, but helps with tallying participants.

Be informed — Get in touch with your county or local emergency management office to understand what is happening in your community, what the potential hazards are and what can be done to prepare for them.