With the annual Great ShakeOut earthquake drill today, now’s a good time to ask yourself: “How’s that whole emergency preparedness thing going?”
Are you feeling twinges of guilt because you still haven’t stashed away any food, water or spare batteries? Maybe you were patting yourself on the back for your family’s three-day supply of provisions and gear — until last year’s Cascadia Rising drill made it clear that folks in Western Washington may have to survive on their own for up to two weeks after a megaquake and tsunami.
From hurricanes in Houston and Puerto Rico to deadly earthquakes in Mexico, recent disasters show how long it can take for assistance to arrive and for power, water and transportation to be restored. Victims are left to fend for themselves and help each other in the chaotic aftermath.
Gov. Jay Inslee says one of his top earthquake priorities is to teach citizens how to prepare themselves and cope with conditions after the ground stops shaking. But the state has yet to provide any funding for educational outreach.
Local emergency management departments do their best to offer training and guidance, but the task is daunting. Seattle has three outreach staff for a city of more than 700,000. In Grays Harbor County on the Washington coast, emergency manager Chuck Wallace runs a 1.5-person shop responsible for an area nearly the size of Delaware.
“Virtually everyone is going to have to rely on themselves after a major event,” Wallace said. “We need citizens to step up and help lead the way.”
Here are the stories of five individuals who have taken up that challenge. Some are helping their own communities get ready, while others are focused on vulnerable groups or evacuating injured people when roads and bridges are in tatters. Something they all have in common is an inability to ignore the threat — or leave the job for someone else.
“I have a hard time passing the buck, ” said Sky Terry, of Bellingham. “If I can do one more thing, and maybe help two more people, I feel like I have the obligation to do it.”
Seaplanes to the Rescue
A nurse and an Army veteran, Terry is the guy who jumps in to rescue a drowning man and who never drives past an accident scene.
The human toll from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 hit him like a gut punch, and he was frustrated that he wasn’t in a position to help. As he learned about the 700-mile-long offshore fault called the Cascadia Subduction Zone, he realized that Washington was in for an even bigger disaster someday.
With bridges, roads and airports unusable, evacuating the injured and delivering water and food will be nearly impossible at first.
“I wondered if anybody had looked at seaplanes,” Terry said.
The answer was no. So he set out to recruit pilots and convince emergency managers that civilian aircraft should be integrated into their disaster planning.
Private planes were among the first to reach parts of the battered Florida Keys after Hurricane Irma last month, and volunteers are still delivering aid to desperate Puerto Ricans via amphibious aircraft called flying boats.
The “Cajun navy” of bass boats, catamarans and Jet Skis that rushed to rescue Houstonians after Hurricane Harvey illustrates the fact that people always mobilize after a disaster. Organizing and training in advance can make that outpouring of support more effective and less chaotic, Terry said.
In Clallam and Jefferson counties on the Olympic Peninsula, where officials expect to be cut off for several weeks after a big quake, emergency planners have embraced the idea. Statewide, more than 40 planes and their owners have participated in exercises or committed to helping during future disasters.
During one drill this summer, volunteers loaded mock patients on a floatplane bobbing in the surf. Terry, 41, has even recruited Alaskan and Canadian bush pilots with specialized planes to deliver aviation fuel after a big quake.
He does it all in his spare time while juggling a regular job and caring for two small children.
“There are times when I just want to throw up my hands and say: ‘To hell with this,’ ” he admitted. Then he recalls the faces of people he’s rescued from car wrecks or brought back from the brink with CPR.
“When this quake happens, if we don’t have a community set up to jump in and help, there are people who aren’t going to make it who could have,” he said. “I can’t let that go.”
Tummy Rumble Quake
“What do you think an earthquake is?” Heather Beal asked a group of toddlers gathered around her at Martha & Mary KIDS Child Care Center in Poulsbo.
Several hands shot up.
“It’s a fire,” one boy declared, while others nodded in agreement.
No one expects 3- and 4-year-olds to be conversant in seismology, but Beal believes they’re not too young to learn about what happens when the ground shakes — and what they can do to protect themselves.
A former Navy lieutenant commander with a 6-year-old daughter and a 2 1/2-year-old son, Beal started to wonder about preparedness at day cares when she moved with her husband to Bremerton — where they plan to retire — a year ago.
“This is earthquake country, and there’s a lot of people in denial about that,” she said.
Licensed day cares must have emergency plans and conduct earthquake and fire drills — but many don’t have the staff or expertise to test the plans and ensure that they’re practical and workable.
“Child-care providers are the first responders for our children,” Beal said. “I want to bridge that gap between emergency management and child-care centers.”
She wrote a kids’ book about earthquakes, called “Tummy Rumble Quake,” to provide an introduction that’s educational, but not scary. Through her nonprofit, BLOCKS, she offers readings, like the one in Poulsbo, that double as simple training sessions on the duck-cover-and-hold-on basics.
Beal, 46, is also working with day-care centers to help them improve their emergency plans and procedures and start thinking about what it will take to reopen after a quake hits.
“We all know that if parents don’t go back to work,” she said, “communities don’t recover.”
Retirees Ready to Roll
When an earthquake rocks Washington, the residents of Pacific Regent retirement community in Bellevue will be ready to roll.
Teams assigned to each floor of the 18-story high-rise will fan out systematically, knocking on doors, checking on neighbors, and administering first aid. With power and phones knocked out, they’ll communicate via two-way radios.
Elevators won’t work, so there’s food stored on every other floor — peanut butter, big cans of peaches, dried snacks. If water’s in short supply, residents know they can scoop it out of the backs of their toilets.
“Our philosophy is that we have to be self-sufficient for a minimum of seven days without any outside help,” said Stuart Hood, the retired engineer who’s largely responsible for the community’s robust state of readiness. “We’re not all the way there, but we’re close.”
Over the past several years, Hood pulled together a disaster-response group that now includes almost a third of the building’s 130 residents. He organized training sessions in emergency medical care and proper search techniques for locating injured people in apartments with dangling light fixtures and broken glass.
“These are people in their 70s and 80s,” said Hood, himself 87. “They are really into it.”
Now, he hopes to spread the message to every retirement and assisted-living community in Bellevue as a volunteer for the city’s emergency-management department.
In 2015, Pacific Regent was the only retirement community in Bellevue to participate in the Great ShakeOut. Last year there were two.
Hood’s next goal is to get them all on board.
Back to ‘Little House on the Prairie’
The town of Joyce has 3,500 inhabitants, a general store, a couple of restaurants — and some of the most impressive emergency preparations in the state.
Perched above the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Clallam County, the tiny community is already accustomed to isolation and frequent power outages. With a major quake expected to knock out bridges on the three roads into town, anyone expecting FEMA to quickly swoop in with food “is going to be really hungry,” said former State Rep. Jim Buck, who joined with his neighbors to form the group called Joyce Emergency Planning and Preparation.
“The way I put it is: You’re not going back to the Stone Age, but you are going to back to ‘Little House on the Prairie’ for a while,” said Buck, 69.
With the goal of surviving on their own for up to a month, residents pooled their resources, held bake sales and scrounged for donations to stock a shipping container with dehydrated food and emergency supplies.
The Red Cross anted up diapers, blankets and 100 cots. A grant from Walmart bought tubs of corn meal and rice. Somebody uncovered a stash of Forest Service sleeping bags that were about to be thrown away.
Faced with a $10,000 price tag for a hand-operated water purification system, Buck and JEPP member Terry Barnett built their own with off-the-shelf plumbing supplies, most of them donated.
As rural residents, most folks in Joyce are already well-stocked to ride out bad weather and minor disasters, Buck said. The supplies in the container will be there for whoever needs them. Right now, there’s enough to feed 100 people for three weeks, and Buck hopes to triple that.
The hunt for free or low-cost gear continues as well. Next on the list: surplus military generators and a field kitchen.
‘We’re Not Taking Care of Our Kids’
Jeff Guite is a worrier.
He worries about senior citizens and how they will fare in an earthquake. He worries about people who are sick, or don’t have enough money to stockpile food. These days, he worries a lot about school kids.
“A lot of schools have next to nothing in terms of emergency supplies,” he said. “We’re not taking care of our kids.”
Emergency kits are Guite’s business. He founded his small, Seattle-area company, American Preparedness, in 1981, after stints in the military and as a Red Cross volunteer.
“I wanted it to be a social service company,” he said. “I wanted to be able to do good with the proceeds.”
One of the main ways Guite, 71, does good is by giving away his products. He donated 1,500 kits to Seattle’s Meals on Wheels program for seniors. He gave kits to the Chicken Soup Brigade, which provides meals to people living with serious illnesses. Another batch of free kits went to the Seattle Housing Authority, for low-income households.
Through his Kits for Kids program, Guite’s company has been giving kits away to schools for almost 20 years, with the caveat that teachers provide regular emergency preparedness tips to the students.
But there’s only so much a small business can do.
He’d like every child to have at least a three-day supply of food and water and other basics, like a light and a blanket. But no one seems to be making school preparedness a priority.
Guite has been lobbying the state PTA to take up the issue, and partnering with foundations and companies to help defray costs and get kits to more kids.
But watching the recent earthquakes in Mexico, which collapsed at least one school building, makes him worry even more.
“We know we’re going to get hit,” he said. “Do we have to wait for it to happen to prove how bad it’s going to be?”