Local agencies respond to pretend earthquake
“To put a similar exercise together without the aid of FEMA, County Emergency Manager Doug McGillivray said, “would have cost us a quarter of a million dollars.” Some 91 county and city officials, along with representatives from area hospitals, utilities and disaster response agencies participated, he said.
The hypothetical quake struck during the training, and participants were immediately pressed into service in the county emergency operations center. Some found themselves serving in unfamiliar roles, having to quickly learn a new set of procedures and expectations.
As search and rescue teams combed the rubble for survivors, public information officers repeatedly assured insistent media and frantic residents that shelter locations would be released as soon as possible. But they said they could not do so until buildings had been inspected for safety.
Bridges were down on many highways. All communities were without potable water, pending inspections of their lines.
McMinnville and Yamhill promised to truck water in from their reservoirs. Other cities were seeking deliveries of bottled water.
The death toll was nearing 40 for the county. The numbers of injured were higher, and the number of missing still unknown.
It quickly became apparent that such a massive disaster would entail complicated issues. Residents needed to be informed of where they could obtain help, and asked to refrain from calling 911 for anything but an immediate, life-threatening emergency.
But with no electricity, and possibly telephones out, communication became difficult. Later, as they considered the issue of recovery, participants discussed the complications of advising people to boil or otherwise sterilize drinking water, without electricity or gas.
With bridges collapsed and many roads either damaged beyond use or impassible with debris, air support became crucial.
By the end of the second day of the exercise, McGillivray said, some participants had told them they felt disappointed, because they hadn’t always been successful in their efforts. But observing what went wrong is a crucial part of the exercise.
“Now you know what to fix,” he said.
One comment heard repeatedly throughout the exercise was that participants were seeing a number of problems they could begin working on immediately, to make an actual emergency run more smoothly. With public education handouts, lists of local resources and contact information, and some policy decisions prepared ahead of time, they said, they could spare some of the work they found themselves doing under pressure during the exercise, save time, and operate more efficiently.
FEMA instructors repeatedly praised the participants for their cooperative attitudes and flexible thinking, saying that from their perspective, the exercise had been extremely successful.
The scenario portrayed a number of dazed and injured survivors walking into area hospitals. But many McMinnville residents might be unable to reach the Willamette Valley Medical Center, if the aging Three Mile Lane Bridge were to collapse.
It’s a possibility that hasn’t escaped local officials. Jim Bratcher, director of emergency preparation coordination for WVMC, and the director of cardiopulmonary services, said that the hospital is working on setting up alternative care sites, in the event that patients – or staff – cannot reach the hospital. It also is talking with area churches about providing locations where patients can remain for a period of time for observation, he said, and with local pharmacies about providing emergency medical supplies.
McGillivray noted that search and rescue operations would be extremely difficult in the scenario. Downtown McMinnville consists primarily of historic brick buildings, that could well collapse in a major earthquake.
“Those unreinforced masonry buildings come down, and the fire department rolls up the doors,” he said. “They go nowhere because the streets are full of debris.”
That debris also might include downed power lines. Meanwhile ruptured gas lines would be causing fires, and ruptured water lines would make those fires difficult to fight.
But fire engines and rescue crews would have to wait for public works and utility crews to clear the roads, before they could respond to emergencies, McGillivray said.
While the exercise was aimed at training officials and responders, the need for residents to prepare themselves cannot be overstated, McGillivray said.
“Those who do not prepare, think about, participate in their local Community Emergency Response Team, and expect that any level of government is going to come to their aid and make them whole are mistaken,” he said. “It can’t happen.”
A major subduction zone earthquake would affect the entire Cascadia Region, leaving resources on a national level badly over-extended.
Kelly Jo Craigmiles, of the state Emergency Management Office, said the state is working with federal officials, along with Washington and Alaska, to address such concerns.
“You are lucky here,” she said, noting that rural residents, who often are relatively self-reliant, are far better equipped to handle emergencies and extended power outages than urban residents.
While it’s important not to become overwhelmed by the scope of the problem, FEMA instructor Susan Green said, it’s also critical to work toward preparing as much as possible.
Green, who is the state training officer for Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management, taught a section on mass shelter and feeding.
Individuals, she said, need to focus on what their needs will be, and how best to meet them.
“My emergency kit will look different than your kit,” she noted, based on a variety of factors – children, pets, medical issues and the like.
It is critically important, she said, that individuals be prepared to be on their own for at least 72 hours. In the case of a subduction zone earthquake, some experts have suggested a timeline closer to two or three weeks.
Green said she was especially impressed by participants’ emphasis on understanding the perspective of local residents, and anticipating their reactions accordingly – assuming, for example, that many people whose homes were destroyed or made unsafe would likely prefer to camp on their own property, rather than go to shelters.
Such insights will be important, she said, because each scenario creates different issues for local emergency responders.