Heavy traffic northbound on 1-5 in Everett, Washington on August 31, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Heavy traffic northbound on 1-5 in Everett, Washington on August 31, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

On I-5 in Everett, traffic nightmare is reminder we’re ‘very vulnerable’

After a police shooting shut down the freeway, commutes turned into all-night affairs. It was just a hint of what could be in a widespread disaster.

EVERETT — When a deadly police shooting shut down I-5 near Everett on Thursday, chaos ensued for hours on roads around Snohomish County.

Drivers, stranded on clogged back roads, grew hostile.

Motorcycles rode on sidewalks, cars drove on the wrong side of the road and uncontrolled intersections bred anarchy, said Kristen Velez, who was driving from Mukilteo to Providence hospital in Everett.

Shortly after 4 p.m., Washington State Patrol had responded to a report of a man armed with a hammer on the shoulder of northbound I-5. The man attacked a trooper as well as workers contracted with the state Department of Transportation, county investigators said. A trooper shot the man, who was pronounced dead at the scene.

Authorities shut down the freeway to investigate until midnight, resulting in a bumper-to-bumper backup that kept drivers gridlocked for hours. It happened to coincide with a construction constriction of Highway 529, the other main route from Everett to Marysville.

“We as a society are incredibly dependent on this complex network of infrastructure that is, at its heart, very vulnerable,” said Lucia Schmit, the county’s emergency management director.

Kassia Reed left work in Edmonds around 5:30 p.m. She pulled into her driveway in Marysville at 12:30 a.m. Her daily commute home usually takes just over an hour.

“I was afraid that if I get out of this line to find food and a bathroom, is it going to delay me even longer to get home?” Reed said. “It was just very poorly handled.”

Another driver, Nate Oberg, said he left Lynnwood at 7:15 p.m. and rolled up to his Marysville home at 1:15 a.m.

“I spent most of my time on Marine View Drive,” he said. “Every semi truck was using the left lane to pass everybody, then would force their way into lanes. It was absolute chaos.”

Kailee Fennel had been stuck on Broadway in Everett when she saw several school buses with students from Quincy Elementary. It was 10:30 p.m.

“They had just been sitting there for hours at this point,” Fennel said.

The traffic jam sparked flashbacks for some residents, who experienced major delays 12 years ago when a drunk driving crash closed Highway 529. The police department didn’t deploy officers to control traffic then either, as it would be pointless in such a gridlock, the department said. And in 2013, the four-lane I-5 bridge over the Skagit River collapsed, causing another traffic crisis and raising questions about the state of local transportation infrastructure.

“Yesterday was something we haven’t seen in a long time,” Preston Dwoskin, of Marysville, said Friday.

This time, it was road rage that ended in a police shooting. Next, it could be a devastating natural disaster or other widespread emergency. In a major event, panic and mass evacuations could create backups far worse than what drivers experienced this week, especially if the road itself is damaged in, say, a major earthquake.

“As far as an evacuation, (the plan is) going to be really reactionary to what is going on,” said Elizabeth Mount, a spokesperson for the state Department of Transportation. “It really depends on the circumstances.”

The county’s Emergency Command Center would identify road closures, rerouting and evacuation routes, according to the county’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan from 2019.

Everett Fire Department spokesperson Rachael Doniger said emergency response would work with other agencies to coordinate traffic in the case of a natural disaster or related event.

When a massive mudslide buried an Oso neighborhood and killed 43 people in 2014, a stretch of Highway 530 was inaccessible for weeks. Each day, a work commute or simple trip to the grocery store took hours.

If you’re holding your breath for significant infrastructure reroutes in the region, well, please exhale.

“The better plan, that I think will pay off in the 20 years it takes for a transportation plan to be implemented, is for folks to have some supplies with them in their car,” Schmit said.

People should also find emergency contacts for daycare pickups, pet feeding and other last-minute needs in case of travel delays, she said.

But in the case of the Big One, a long-predicted Pacific Northwest megaquake, you may have to forget about driving altogether. Such a quake would split Snohomish County along broken roads and bridges, with residents marooned into 58 “population islands” along with parts of Island, King and Skagit counties.

The region is overdue for a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake strong enough to level buildings, cause a tsunami and kill thousands. And the South Whidbey Island Fault running under much of southwest Snohomish County may be as big of a threat to the county.

“Many of our main thoroughfares will be impassable,” Schmit said.

In the case of a major earthquake, about 80% of bridges in Snohomish County would sustain damage that could take years to repair, according to an earthquake series The Daily Herald published in 2021.

In 2022, the county Department of Emergency Management published an interactive map detailing how a magnitude 9.0 earthquake could ruin the county’s transportation system and create the population islands. Each predicted island has its own demographics, including resident ages, disabilities, income and vehicle access.

Schmit said emergency preparedness is not a matter of if, but when — and residents should expect to rely on each other, as government entities don’t always have the plans or resources to spring into action.

“When you take the time to prepare for the really big one, it also makes you prepared for the smaller disruptions,” she said. “If you have bottled water in your home for the big earthquake, then it also works if the water main breaks down the street.”

The county’s emergency planners identified 372 potential spots within the islands to train residents for recovery and stash relief supplies. In general, Schmit recommends storing two weeks’ worth of supplies at home, with smaller kits at work and in vehicles.

“Part of your ‘go’ kit in your car ought to be good shoes,” added Scott North, spokesperson for the Department of Emergency Management.

Dwoskin has some emergency preparedness training under his belt and a survival kit at home. But he doesn’t think the county or most of its residents are prepared to handle a catastrophic event.

“Most people think it’s a waste of time, it isn’t,” Dwoskin said. “It’s a life reality. You need to be prepared for anything.”

It wasn’t all doom and gloom Thursday evening.

In north Everett, people handed out snacks and water to strangers stuck in traffic.

“That bag of chips held me over for 6 hours while in traffic,” one Facebook user wrote. “Absolutely miserable but they definitely brightened my spirits with their kindness.”

Ways to be prepared

• Sign up for SnoCoAlerts for the county’s early warning notifications.

• Use the MyShake app for data about earthquakes in progress.

• Sign up for Smart911 to give local first responders access to important information such as family members, pets, medical history and vehicles.

Sydney Jackson: 425-339-3430; sydney.jackson@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @_sydneyajackson.

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