Burke: We’re not ready for the Big One, but we must prepare

The biggest shock won’t be the quake but the realization that help will take longer to reach us than we thought.

By Tom Burke / Herald columnist

Disasters come in all sizes and shapes; from the personal (lost car keys); to the political (DeSantis’s 2024 bid for president); to the physical (2022’s Hurricane Ian in Florida).

But the disaster most concerning to me is the one combining all three — The Big One — (or a particularly malevolent middle-sized quake or sneaky-but-well-placed little temblor) striking the Pacific Northwest.

And two events triggering my latest bout of “doom, disaster, how-do-we cope?” were a YouTube video commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami and a CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) class my wife is taking.

I stumbled across the YouTude video, a retrospective of the disaster, while surfing one night.

It starts with real-time footage of the earthquake, documenting its beyond-imagination power (a must-watch for anyone saying, “It won’t be that bad) and concludes with heart-rendering coverage of the damage and rescue attempts of those poor, stricken people, of which 18,000 perished.

The CERT class is part of my wife’s role in co-managing our community’s Disaster Response Committee, which is a neighborhood program anticipating disasters of all types and helping prepare our community’s 500 or so residents for wind storms, floods, snow and freezing temperatures, heat waves, and The Big One.

Now over the past seven years I’ve written about disaster prep more than a few times:

• I’ve used the Aesop fable of the “Ant and the Grasshopper” to confront the moral dilemma faced by those who have prepared for disaster versus those who have prepared nothing; and what obligation the former owes the latter for help;

• I’ve written about the all-day, all-service “dry run” Cascadia Rising 2016 exercise sponsored by FEMA and the state to ascertain governmental readiness to a major earthquake (it was not good, and hasn’t gotten much better); and

• I wrote a couple of years ago, “I think if the Big One hits we’ll suffer three shocks: the first when the Cascadia Fault slips, the second when we discover it’s worse than anyone imagined, and the third that we were so unprepared.”

Getting personally prepared for a disaster isn’t particularly difficult, but it takes a commitment of time, money, and the willingness to do a bit of reading to figure out what to do.

The first step is recognizing the need to prepare. And watching that YouTube video “3/11/11: The First Three Days,” produced by NHK, the acclaimed international service of Japan’s public media organization — at tinyurl.com/JapanTsunami10NHK — should be all one needs.

The video puts you in the middle of a quake 45 miles off Japan’s coast and it’s chilling. Note that our Big One could be 60 miles off our shore. And Japan’s infrastructure is far better built to withstand a quake than ours.

Next comes figuring out what to do. And here, there is no dearth of information from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state, the Red Cross, or the county. There are lists of stuff to stockpile, info about how to maintain contact with likley scattered family members, and guides for first aid. Just Google “Disaster Preparedness” and you’ll have all you need to get ready.

Finally, as Nike says, “Just do it.” Get the stuff. Stockpile it in a safe place (at home and in the car) and you’ll sleep easier (with a sturdy pair of boots at the bedside in case you need to venture out amid the broken glass and wreckage of your neighborhood).

But — and this is the big but — when you’re told you only need supplies for two or three weeks, that’s more than optimistic.

A major earthquake will isolate Snohomish and King counties for months. If you doubt that, next time you drive down I-5 or I-405, out U.S. 2, or across Lake Washington, just think how long it will take to fix one or two or ten of the bridges, overpasses or elevated roads if they come down. And they will come down.

Others are preparing. The Northwest Aviation Consortium coordinated a disaster response exercise on Tuesday with participation among fire, police and U.S. Navy agencies across the state and Snohomish County, inlcuding exercises at Everett Naval Station.

Now about CERT.

The “official” definition of CERT is, “Training (that) covers basic skills that are important to know in a disaster when emergency services are not available.“

And the reality is emergency services won’t be as available as needed (or as you hope they will be) and this incredibly comprehensive course is taught by practicing first responders who live what they are teaching.

Now taking the classes (it’s a total of 20 hours in a series of weekly sessions) is definitely a commitment. But a half-dozen times out (in a lifetime) at a local fire station is no sacrifice when the world really does fall in on you, your family, and neighbors. (You can learn more at snohomishcountywa.gov/3623/CERT.)

My wife is taking the course for a second time (she first took it years ago) and is becoming something of an authority on disaster preparation. And we are pretty ready. I’m not so sure about some neighbors though, and that worries me.

So at the risk of redundancy, I’m going to repeat the warning I sounded earlier: “If the Big One hits, we’ll suffer three shocks: the first when the Cascadia Fault slips, the second when we discover it’s worse than anyone imagined, and the third that we were so unprepared.”

And at the risk of further embarrassing myself, cut that quote out and tape it to the fridge. Then, after the quake, in two months or so when the mail is again delivered and/or the internet is working, send me a note telling me I was wrong.

I doubt I’ll get much mail.

Slava Ukrani.

Tom Burke’s email address is t.burke.column@gmail.com.

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