Politics & Government

Local officials outline ways to minimize impacts of earthquakes and other hazards

Staff file, 2001: Damage to the Fourth Avenue Bridge in Olympia is evident as workers assess the impact of the Nisqually Earthquake.
Staff file, 2001: Damage to the Fourth Avenue Bridge in Olympia is evident as workers assess the impact of the Nisqually Earthquake. Staff photographer

Earthquakes, floods and ice storms are hazards that can’t be stopped.

But with the right planning, those events don’t have to cripple communities and turn into disasters, local emergency management officials say.

A new, nearly 400-page document outlines the top emergency hazards and how local officials plan to minimize their damage.

The Hazards Mitigation Plan for the Thurston Region was prepared by the Thurston Regional Planning Council, and is under review for public comment through Wednesday afternoon. A work group of nearly 30 emergency response representatives from Thurston County’s cities and towns, tribes, school districts, fire districts and other groups worked for the past two years to develop the plan.

Local governments also worked together on hazards mitigation plans in 2003 and 2009.

“Our first two plans were somewhat more response and preparedness orientated,” said Paul Brewster, a senior planner with Thurston Regional Planning Council, which represents 21 jurisdictions and organizations in the area. “The whole point of mitigation is to prevent the disaster from occurring in the first place, and minimizing the impact.”

Thurston County has the fifth-highest rate of federal disaster declarations in the state. Between 1965 and 2016, the county received 22 federal declarations, including ones tied to a 6.7 magnitude earthquake that rocked the Puget Sound region on April 29, 1965, the eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, and the 6.8 magnitude Nisqually Earthquake on Feb. 28, 2001.

The most recent declaration was in 2012 when a winter storm buried Thurston County in a foot of snow and ice.

In 2014, Thurston County was awarded nearly $60,000 in grants to update the hazards mitigation plan, and that amount was matched by the county in staff time and resources, according to Brewster.

The plan is designed to keep South Sound communities from having to issue future federal disaster declarations, which are used to free up money for recovery efforts, according to Andrew Kinney, emergency management coordinator for Thurston County. The plan defines mitigation as actions that reduce the demand for preparedness and response activities, such as elevating or removing structures in areas that are prone to flooding or regulating future development in those areas.

“The whole point of the plan is to break that disaster cycle,” Brewster said.

Many activities in the plan continue efforts outlined in previous editions, such as a remapping of flood plains for all rivers, streams and high groundwater areas in the region.

Two new activities proposed in the plan are designed to help prevent potential harm after an event. They include training county engineers to conduct seismic evaluations for bridges after an earthquake to determine safety levels and developing a plan to address medical needs of people who rely on electricity-powered medical equipment, such as motorized scooters and dialysis machines.

Each participating municipality or district that participated created their own annex, or local plan, and “should be conducting their own public outreach process on their initiatives before they adopt it,” Brewster said.

The regional plan covers work that will be done over the next five years to protect lives, infrastructure, property and the environment during future hazards. It mixes history with the latest science and technology to identify hazard areas and predict potential impacts.

People can view the plan at www.trpc.org.

One of the outcomes of a past mitigation plan is AlertSense, a new community notification system, Kinney said. People can subscribe to the system to get emergency alerts on river flooding, extreme storms and other hazards. Officials can also use the system to send notifications to mobile devices in certain areas of the county, even if they don’t subscribe to the system.

But there’s much more work that can be done to improve communications during a disaster, Kinney said.

“There are still pockets in the county that you can only reach by landline,” he said.

In addition, the hazards mitigation plan is only one portion of keeping disaster at bay, Kinney said. Emergency preparedness also saves lives when hazards strike, he said.

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433, @Lisa_Pemberton

Provide input

Community members are invited to review and provide feedback on the most recent edition of the Hazards Mitigation Plan for The Thurston Region through 5 p.m. Wednesday. View the plan at www.trpc.org.