It’s been just over one year since the country’s largest domestic earthquake drill took place in Washington state, and residents are lucky that the “big one” hasn’t hit yet. However, they’re definitely more prepared to face the magnitude-9 earthquake and ensuing tsunami that scientists say is coming. They’re also better equipped to deal with current disasters, such as the recent hurricanes in the Texas and Florida.
For decades, mounting evidence indicates that a magnitude-9 earthquake will eventually take place along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a fault line that runs from Cape Mendocino, California, up past Oregon, Washington and along the western shore of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.
Lessons learned since June 7, 2016, when more than 20,000 emergency managers in Idaho, Oregon and Washington kicked off a four-day, large-scale exercise, called Cascadia Rising, continue to guide strategies that improve the Pacific Northwest’s ability to survive and recover from a catastrophic Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) earthquake and tsunami.
The exercise involved local, state, tribal and federal partners, along with military commands, the private sector, and non-governmental organizations, according to FEMA.
“I’m pleased the momentum from Cascadia Rising continues to gain speed,” said Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, director of the Washington Military Department and commander of the Washington National Guard. “As a result of the exercise, our governor directed the formation of a Resilient Washington sub-cabinet, a multi-agency work group charged with improving our state’s resiliency. Cascadia Rising also guided our decision to change our recommendation on preparedness, so we’re now telling people to have enough emergency supplies to stay on their own for up to two weeks.”
“Cascadia Rising was the largest exercise the State of Oregon has ever conducted. The complexity of the four-day exercise provided an unprecedented opportunity to examine and assess response and emergency management practices, and identify areas where we excel and where we can improve,” said Oregon Office of Emergency Management Director Andrew Phelps. “The collaboration among all levels of government, and with our private sector partners leading up to and during the exercise, was outstanding. I believe these relationships were strengthened through this experience and will continue to grow as we work toward enhancing our preparedness posture.”
“In addition, Cascadia Rising served as a reminder to all Oregonians that individual and family emergency preparedness is key to an effective response to an earthquake or any disaster and [to] begin the recovery process,” said Phelps. “As we constantly improve our capabilities, we ask all to be prepared for at least two weeks.”
Idaho’s participation helped raise awareness that the residual effects of an earthquake and tsunami along the coast would be felt in Idaho. That includes the possible need to accommodate tens of thousands of evacuees and displaced persons who were directly impacted.
“The countless strong partnerships we cultivated in the years leading up to the exercise proved invaluable to the success of Cascadia Rising in Idaho,” said Gen Brad Richy, of the Idaho Office of Emergency Management. “The collaboration with FEMA Region 10, and our Idaho counties, is proving indispensable as Idaho currently manages one of the most challenging flood seasons on record. Thirty-one of Idaho’s 44 counties have disaster declarations in place right now. When people ask about the importance of exercises, I like to point out that lessons learned during Cascadia Rising 2016 have improved our swift and effective response to the 2017 flooding disasters.”
The Cascadia Rising 2016 exercise highlighted a number of critical areas that the emergency management community must improve before the fault ruptures, said Sharon Loper, acting FEMA Region 10 administrator, noting that many residents and infrastructure will be affected.
“The exercise highlighted a number of infrastructure interdependencies our residents have come to rely on, such as electricity, communications, fuel, water and our roads,” Loper explained. “Most of these sectors would be heavily disrupted after a CSZ event and plans are being developed and exercised that focus on the efficient recovery of these essential services. In this past year, FEMA Region 10 has made improvements in coordinating disaster logistics, family reunification strategies and mass power outage scenarios with our partners.”
Exercises like Cascadia Rising are improving officials’ response in the face of sudden disaster, Loper noted.
Lying mostly offshore, the plate interface that is the Cascadia Subduction Zone is a giant fault approximately 700 miles long. At this location, the set of tectonic plates to the west is sliding (subducting) beneath the North American plate. However, friction prevents these two plates from moving, so at the moment, they’re essentially stuck.
The stress of these boundaries is continuously building, which means that the fault will eventually give, and when it does (and it will), the event will likely set off a devastating 700-mile earthquake and could cause a tsunami along the California, Oregon and Washington coastlines.
The goal of last year’s Cascadia Rising 2016 exercise was to test plans and procedures through a magnitude-9 earthquake and follow-up tsunami with expectations to improve catastrophic disaster operational readiness across the whole community.
The “Cascadia Rising” scenario, developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), estimates that a magnitude-9 quake and tsunami could kill 14,000 people and injure more than 30,000 in Washington and Oregon alone. More than 7,000 highway bridges and 16,000 miles of roadway are expected to suffer moderate to severe damage, including all routes to the Pacific Coast and Washington’s major east-west corridors.
“Everything we depend on to live our 21st-century lives is going to be significantly degraded or eradicated,” Washington Emergency Management Director Robert Ezelle told the Seattle Times. “The needs are going to be immediate, they are going to be urgent and they are going to be overwhelming.”
The drill succeeded in exposing gaps and weaknesses in plans that had never been tested on such a massive scale. “It gave us perspective that we did not have,” Ezelle said.
State, local and federal agencies are now finalizing their own “after-action” reports that will identify what worked, what failed and how to apply the lessons learned.