Agencies Hold Response Drill for the ‘Big One’

No one felt tremors. No one flooded hospitals. Power and cell phone service remained intact. But the effects of a major earthquake were felt and discussed in “situation rooms” and “command centers” around the region during a practice emergency response drill as a way to be better prepared for when the earth shakes for real.

More than 22 Pierce County cities, towns, departments and organizations practiced their emergency response plans earlier this week during a simulated magnitude 7.1 earthquake along the Tacoma Fault. An earthquake of that strength is considered a major disaster, with destruction over a large area. It is not a matter of fiction, however, since the U.S. Geological Survey and cooperating scientists have assessed that an earthquake of that size struck the South Sound some 1,100 years ago and is “almost certain to occur in the future.”

The most recent comparable disaster was the Nisqually earthquake of 2001. That earthquake, however, just reached a magnitude of 6.8, was centered in a largely rural area and occurred much deeper in the soil, which limited its destructive potential. It still managed to tally some $2 billion in damages. Movement of the Tacoma Fault would be closer to the surface, have a higher magnitude and hit a more densely populated area that stretches from Kent and Auburn to Thurston County. The Tacoma Fault runs west to east just northwest of Tacoma and has fingers that reach across Puget Sound to Federal Way.

Damage from a quake along the fault would come from the ground shaking buildings, aftershocks chipping away at already damaged foundations, landslides and tsunami waves flooding much of Tacoma’s Tideflats, Fife and areas around Interstate 5 in a matter of minutes. A two-day exercise, dubbed “Operation Pine Cone,” was designed to test the emergency response plans to handle what would happen next.

In the simulation, some 752 people were “confirmed dead” and 3,671 were “injured.” Interstate 5 was blocked by collapsed overpasses, the County/City Building was destroyed and a pipeline at McChord Field ruptured and released some 277,200 gallons of jet fuel into parts of Parkland, which then caused fires. Hospitals were damaged. Power lines collapsed. Water mains ruptured. Sewer lines contaminated water supplies. Fires dotted the landscape.

Shelters “activated” around the county with coordinators fielding phone calls and tracking their status on a white board. Volunteer radio operators took to the airwaves to collect damage reports and chart recovery efforts. A government pod coordinated the use of disaster proclamations, while finance workers tracked all the fictional dollars spent during the effort.

The Pierce County exercise is part of a larger six-county exercise called "Evergreen Quake," which includes King, Kitsap, Pierce, Skagit, Snohomish and Thurston counties, as well as multiple tribal, state and federal agencies. Other participating agencies include: the Mount Rainier Chapter of the American Red Cross, the City of Lakewood, Law Enforcement Support Agency, Clover Park Technical College, Pierce County Citizen Corps Council, Franciscan Health Care, MultiCare, Tacoma/Pierce County Health Department, Puyallup Emergency Management, and several fire, school and water districts.

“Pierce County participates in emergency exercises every year to keep staff trained and systems up to date,” said Emergency Management Director Steve Bailey. “The Operation Pine Cone and Evergreen Quake exercises are a rare opportunity for a large number of partners to practice interdependencies and communications that will be the backbone of an effective response to a catastrophic event.”

Monitors watched the emergency drill unfold while after-action reports and rosters of recommendations for ways to improve will fill the work schedules for participants through the summer. Then planning starts for the next drill.

“Emergency preparedness is just a big cycle,” Pierce County Emergency Management spokeswoman Sheri Badger said. “It just goes over and over.”

Much of the simulation took place at the Tacoma/Pierce County Emergency Operations Center, a $10 million, central command hub to coordinate rescue and recovery operations that was built in 2008 to withstand a magnitude 6.7 earthquake, one smaller than the simulation although it was not “damaged” in this faux event. But the former center in the County/City Building was damaged during the 2001 quake, speeding up plans for the new facility.

“I think it was Nisqually that really solidified it,” Badger said. “We were rushing in to assess the damage while other people were rushing out of the building.”

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