Few are prepared for a major disaster

After the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, Olympia residents Robert and Dolores Todd took extra measures to prepare for the next natural disaster.

“We have lots of food stored, and also bottled water,” Robert Todd said. “We keep the cars full of gas, 14 flashlights, lots of batteries, two battery radios and a month’s supply of our medications.”

But chances are the Todds are the exception, not the rule.

“When it comes to earthquake preparedness, I don’t get any sense of urgency,” said Tim Walsh, chief hazards geologist for the state Department of Natural Resources. “People get numbed to the message: It’s sort of like the ‘Three Little Pigs’ – two don’t care and one cares a lot.”

“We usually see a spike in earthquake preparedness right after an earthquake,” said Greg Wright, Olympia assistant fire chief and city emergency management coordinator. “But as time passes, the less prepared people are.”

Monday will mark 10 years since the last damaging earthquake in South Sound.

According to some community surveys, the majority of people have taken a few, modest steps to be better prepared for the next damaging earthquake. But few have done everything they can to fasten down items in their home, complete a family disaster plan and keep disaster kits at home or work.

An American Red Cross national survey conducted in 2009 found that about 80 percent of the respondents had taken at least one key preparedness step, but only about 12 percent were reasonably prepared for a disaster.

In a 2006 survey of Thurston County adults by county public health officials, 81 percent said they had a battery-operated radio and 55 percent had a three-day supply of drinking water.

But only 26 percent had a plan for how they would evacuate their home in case of a large-scale disaster, something emergency management officials strongly recommend.

Since the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, the state Emergency Management Division has beefed up its public education program, relying on its Internet site where the public can download 17 preparedness videos and find information on how to prepare their offices and homes – in English and six other languages.

There’s a Prepare in a Year Program that shows people how to spend one hour a month to develop a pretty thorough disaster preparedness plan in one year, which is less overwhelming than trying to do everything quickly.

“Oftentimes, people take the first step, then stop,” said John Schelling, earthquake program manager for the Emergency Management Division, explaining the need for the program. “We’re trying to motivate people to keep preparing.”

Thurston County emergency manager Kathy Estes said her office has stepped up education efforts since the Nisqually earthquake. Last week, county emergency response trainers were at the Panorama retirement community in Lacey, one of about 15 classes a year conducted in a five-county area.

Another program called Map Your Neighborhood trains one person to spread the disaster-planning message through his or her neighborhood, one family at a time.

Still, there’s always a nagging question among emergency management officials. Are people really planning for the next “big one”?

“We give people information; whether they use it or not we don’t know,” said Rosanne Garrand, state emergency management education coordinator.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com