Eastside city officials return from mock disaster and emergency training
by Jeff Switzer
You didn't feel it, but during the 95-degree heat wave two weeks ago, the Eastside finally had the big one: a 7.3 magnitude earthquake centered on Alpine Lakes at 12:18 p.m., killing 16, injuring 102, causing $2.3 billion in damage, and leaving several hundred structures uninhabitable, including City Hall in Woodinville, which summarily collapsed.
Fortunately, it happened in Mt. Weather, Virginia at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) emergency preparedness mock event, a course to which five Eastside cities sent officials to better prepare for when the big one does hit.
"They made it as stressful and realistic as they could," said Ray Sturtz, Woodinville's planning director. "The instructors were from around the United States and had real-life experiences with disasters and how to deal with them. That made it very worthwhile."
The four-day course briefed city employees and emergency response personnel from Woodinville, Redmond, Kirkland, Bellevue, and Mercer Island, and with detailed information about the area, FEMA created a four-hour disaster to which everyone--from mayors to city planners to police and fire personnel--had to respond as if it were a real emergency.
The phones and radios were immediately overloaded, overpasses and bridges were unusable, and Mercer Island was without water and isolated. Interstate 405 collapsed, cleaving the Eastside, and 88 students were reported trapped at Lake Washington High School.
In all, the 75 city staff and 24 state and federal personnel dealt with 172 separate incidents. Woodinville sent four city staff, Police Sgt. Krogh, Fire Chief Jim Davis, and two fire representatives, as well as school and hospital personnel.
"The lessons learned apply to any hazard: power outages, windstorms, snow storms, bomb threats," said Barb Graff, Bellevue's emergency management planner. "When it came to policy, there was a lot of synergy between the elected officials, who treated the whole Eastside as one entity. We learned that we have to improve how we communicate, and expand the roster of interlocal agreements and mutual aid, as well as public-private agreements."
While the cities have their own emergency response plans in place, participants expected and learned they were vying for limited resources, and coordination was essential to deal with the emergencies regionally, drawing from unaffected areas to support the heavily hit ones.
The simulation showed that the City of Woodinville, with only two dozen employees, was quickly in need of support crews and backup. Sturtz said the next step is putting interlocal agreements in place and contracting with outside agencies to come in and provide services, such as timely structure inspection and radios when lines go down.
"I hadn't realized the long-term impact to city employees," said Sturtz. "There's a lot of turnover where there is no stress relief."
He noted the immediate need to have an alternative to city hall phones, because even if the lines are repaired, "when city hall collapses, the phones will be dust."
"With a population of about 300,000 between us (the Eastside cities), there aren't enough of us," Graff gestured. "People need to be trained in basic first aid and CPR, learn how to turn off the gas and the power, and be prepared with supplies for 72 hours, because that's how long it takes for the government to get to you."
Graff added that, as was discovered in San Francisco, 80 percent of all life saving measures are taken by ordinary citizens.
"The message we need to send is that you will get only so many wake-up calls," she said. "Prepare now."