At 8 a.m. Tuesday, a fake 9.0 magnitude earthquake will hit 95 miles west of Eugene, Oregon, triggering a tsunami expected to strike not only the West Coast, but the entire Pacific Rim basin.
In real life, such a quake, along what’s known as the Cascadia subduction zone, would have devastating implications for Western Washington.
The effects from such prolonged earth shaking and the resulting tsunami would be anyone’s guess, but federal emergency officials have spent almost three years creating a worst-case scenario.
The culmination of that planning will be unleashed on the Pacific Northwest on Tuesday in a four-day exercise — known as Cascadia Rising — to test the region’s ability to respond to what would be the worst widespread natural disaster in modern history.
A real earthquake would be “catastrophic in size, a massive disruption to day-to-day operations and lives,” said Scott Zaffram, training exercises branch chief for Region 10 of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Pierce County emergency management officials say science shows a 9.0 earthquake off the Oregon coast would feel like a 6.8 magnitude quake in the South Sound. That’s the same strength as the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.
But because the shaking would be longer — up to five minutes compared to the 40-second Nisqually quake — damage would be more severe, according to county emergency management spokeswoman Sarah Foster.
“The biggest risks here are liquefaction, the mudslides, and damage to buildings and roads,” Foster said.
Shaking would be amplified in valleys with soft soils. That means buildings and roads in and around the Port of Tacoma and the Puyallup Valley could see more damage than other areas in a real earthquake.
When this week’s Cascadia drill begins, it will be with the assumption that bridges and roads will be damaged across Pierce County, making it difficult to reach neighborhoods and administer aid.
The drill also will assume the Port of Tacoma is underwater, making it impossible to bring supplies into the port.
“When you have something this catastrophi,c people look at this and say, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t solve this problem,’ ” Zaffram said.
Pierce County emergency officials know the best way to overcome that paralyzing fear is to participate in events such as this week’s test.
“This is going to be the biggest exercise any of us has ever undertaken,” Foster said. “This is a good opportunity to holistically look at how we approach an emergency.”
The drill, the largest ever conducted in the Pacific Northwest, will bring together roughly 20,000 people from federal, state and local levels in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, along with tribal governments and multiple branches of the military. FEMA will spend $1.45 million on the exercise. That includes expenses incurred to develop the drill; it does not include expenditures by other participating agencies.
“It’s an unprecedented scale for us to work with the civilians this closely and across so many counties and local jurisdictions,” said Washington National Guard Lt. Col. Clayton Braun.
During the drill, Pierce County will work with 36 South Sound cities and organizations such as the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, the Port of Tacoma, Sound Transit and Pierce Transit.
The majority, if not all, police and fire departments across the county will participate as well.
When a real Cascadia subduction zone earthquake hits, it will require “everything everybody can give to respond,” Braun said.
In those days, much of the out-of-state response likely will be directed to the coast, where authorities assume a 30-to-40-foot-tall tsunami will hit.
A worst-case scenario assumes most of the freeway from Oregon to Canada will see significant damage. That would include knocked-out cellphone towers and utilities along the corridor.
With hundreds of thousands of people trying to use cellphones to reach loved ones, emergency management officials expect phone communication to be impossible immediately following a quake.
To compensate, during the drill officials plan to use radio frequencies to simulate communicating without cellphones, landlines or the internet. Amateur radio operators will participate, using personal equipment to relay messages to local fire departments.
SHAKING, LANDSLIDES, TSUNAMIS
For the three-state Cascadia Rising exercise, FEMA used figures that assume there is only a 10 percent chance that damage could be more severe than what is laid out in the plans.
“By using a worst-case scenario model, it accounts for some of the potential compound effects of aftershocks and landslide impacts,” the 169-page exercise document states.
Science indicates the Cascadia fault is “locked and loaded” to produce a 9.0 magnitude earthquake at any time in the next 200 years, said Bill Steele with the University of Washington’s Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.
It’s possible “all hell could break loose” after a subduction zone earthquake as documented in the FEMA exercise, but the devastation probably won’t be as widespread, he said.
“It paints a picture that I think is much darker than the actual earthquake is going to be,” Steele said.
Despite that, it is important to plan for the worst, he said.
“I think it’s great that we’re really beginning to take seriously the scope and scale of a Cascadia event,” he said. “It will require coordination and cooperation between states, provinces and federal governments.”
When the word goes out Tuesday that the fake earthquake has struck, Gov. Jay Inslee will be joined by FEMA officials, Washington National Guard leaders and state emergency management officials at Camp Murray in Lakewood to begin the response.
A similar scenario will play out in Oregon. In Idaho, officials are participating because they assume an exodus of people from both states will cross the border seeking relief.
While Northern California would be affected by a subduction zone quake, the state is not participating on a large scale in the exercise.
About 2,500 people, most of them with the National Guard, will work with local authorities on response scenarios, which will “range in scope and scale,” Braun said.
Fourteen states are sending people to help, he said.
In the South Sound, the National Guard will use boat ramps on Vashon Island to land military watercraft and set up a support camp where they will sleep during the week. After a real earthquake, shorelines might be the only way to get supplies to people.
“All of our ports will be destroyed, the mountain passes will be severed for a time,” Braun said. “To bring large-scale logistics into the Puget Sound area, you have to bring it in in a maritime way.”
Other training exercises will include:
▪ Army and Navy service members using Naval Magazine Indian Island near Port Townsend to practice transferring supplies over the water, then shore.
▪ The Guard setting up a supplemental support base at the Mason County Fairgrounds to practice dropping and loading supplies from the air.
▪ Dedication of a new tsunami evacuation center in Westport, which will include hoisting someone from the tsunami shelter.
▪ Guard members practicing cleanup of a fake toxic industrial chemical hazardous material spill in Port Angeles, including wearing suits to decontaminate people.
Scenarios laid out for Pierce County emergency management officials will be handled at the county’s emergency operations center at 2501 S. 35th St. in Tacoma. They will respond to simulated mass chaos from damaged buildings and roadways, closed bridges, electrical blackouts, and broken water and sewer pipes.
County emergency management staff members will join the exercise Wednesday, a day after the fake earthquake hits. They’ll come in with the assumption roads are damaged, neighborhoods are isolated, and people need help.
Federal authorities assume more than 700 bridges across Western Washington would collapse or be closed after a major earthquake. That includes more than a dozen bridges holding up I-5.
The Tacoma Narrows bridges would be closed after any sizable quake and wouldn’t reopen until an engineer deemed them safe, said state transportation spokeswoman Barbara LaBoe.
The eastbound bridge was built to withstand the worst earthquake the region could experience in a 2,500-year period, LaBoe said.
“By comparison the Nisqually quake was deemed a one in a 200-year event,” she said.
FEMA set up its exercise to be flexible, allowing each participating jurisdiction to determine what level of chaos it wants, said training branch chief Zaffram.
“There’s really no one cookie-cutter approach to this exercise,” he said. “This exercise has been created to be scaled to what that agency is looking to get out of it.”
Most of the action during the exercise will play out over tabletops at emergency operation centers around the state.
Pierce County emergency managers are focused on three areas:
▪ How to move food, water and critical personnel.
▪ How care for large numbers of people who would need food and water in the days and weeks after the quake.
“If a real disaster of this magnitude happened, how are we going to make sure we’re getting people the resources they need?” said Foster, the emergency management spokeswoman.
Additional problems will be thrown in during the exercise.
“Something this huge, we know things aren’t going to go well,” Foster said. “That’s what we want, we want to learn where our gaps are.”
The scenarios will be kept confidential to keep people caught off guard, she said. She did hint that one exercise could include reports of escaped animals from the Point Defiance Zoo.
“A polar bear is spotted in Ruston,” she said. “How do we respond to that?”
The probability is low that a Cascadia subduction zone quake and resulting tsunami could hit the region in our lifetime, UW’s Steele said.
“It’s nothing you can plan your beach trip around,” he said.
Still, the threat of a real tsunami is enough to keep Steele from staying overnight in areas where there is no quick access to high ground.
“I will certainly go to the coast, and I love the ocean,” he said. “But I wouldn’t spend the night on Long Beach or other places where I couldn’t get out.”
Because the “vast majority” of fatalities in a real subduction zone quake and tsunami would be on the Oregon and Washington coastlines, federal and state aid are expected to go to these areas first.
That means Pierce County residents need to be ready to take care of themselves, Steele said.
“Life is not going to be normal for a while,” he said. “We need to be prepared to be on our own with support from our neighbors for a couple of weeks.”
If a major earthquake hits the Pacific Northwest, emergency management officials estimate it could be at least two weeks before lesser-hit areas receive assistance.
People should create emergency kits with enough supplies such as food, water and medication to last that long.
Emergency kits should include a “grab and go” bucket for evacuations, and people should have separate kits for home, work and car. Suggested contents include:
▪ Flashlight and radio with extra batteries.
▪ Water and nonperishable food.
▪ First aid kit.
▪ Copies of driver’s licenses, insurance information, out-of-area contacts stored in watertight bag.
▪ Spare home and car keys.
▪ Change of clothes.
▪ Diapers or feminine hygiene products
A more extensive list of what to include in a kit and other earthquake preparedness tips can be found at bit.ly/statekit
#CascadiaEQ: Join the conversation
Local, state and federal scientists and preparedness experts will be on Twitter at noon Monday to answer questions about a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake and tsunami. Follow @shakeout and use #CascadiaEQ to ask questions and follow the conversation.