Rick Wallace’s voice broadcast over a Vashon Island radio signal early Tuesday listing disaster after disaster striking the island as the result of a fake 9.0 magnitude earthquake off Oregon’s coast.
At the end of the simulated five-minute quake, buildings were burning, power was out, masonry buildings had fallen, roads were broken and ferry landings destroyed.
Islanders were truly isolated.
Immediately after Wallace’s 8 a.m. broadcast, approximately 30 island residents crawled out from under tables where they had sought shelter at the Vashon Island Fire and Rescue headquarters. They then jumped into action at the fire station, which was doubling as the island’s emergency operations center.
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Some manned laptops logging fake damage reports. Others talked about mass casualties, including listing locations on dry erase boards around the room.
Across the hall, the island’s fire chief acted as incident commander as reports of fake mudslides and damaged roads demanded his attention.
The volunteers were all members of VashonBePrepared, a coalition of the island’s disaster-preparedness organizations that was participating in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s subduction zone earthquake and tsunami drill.
In a real emergency, it is unlikely volunteers would organize so quickly, said volunteer Joe Ulatoski.
We are here to help, we’re not here to take over. We just support with man power and equipment as needed.
Major Patrick Johnson, National Guard 181st Brigade Support Battalion
“Thirty minutes after this event, you’d have no idea who would be coming in here,” he said. “What you’d have is about one and a half hours of pure chaos.”
The volunteers had less time to mobilize than the Washington Army National Guard, which sent some members of the 181st Brigade Support Battalion to the island over the weekend to set up camp.
The bulk of the 181st Brigade team arrived Monday via military watercraft. Landing on the shores of Jensen Point, they dropped ramps to move Humvees and large trucks from the water to the island. Among the vehicles were potable water trucks the Guard stationed at the island IGA grocery store to simulate emergency water distribution.
Early Tuesday, after a pre-earthquake breakfast of steak and eggs, 60 Guard members launched their own emergency operations center in a tent two miles from local volunteers at the fire station.
Electrical wires scaled the tent’s domed ceilings to power temporary lights, computer monitors, laptops and four 55-inch television screens. One screen played live news coverage. The post-earthquake lunch was MREs.
The Guard’s interactions with the VashonBePrepared group were minimal Tuesday, largely because in a real emergency it could be at least a week before outside help arrives, said National Guard Maj. Patrick Johnson.
Following a real earthquake, reports of damage would be shared from local emergency operation centers like the one on Vashon all the way up the governmental chain to FEMA operation centers. The Guard would be dispatched by the governor to the hardest hit areas.
Thirty minutes after this event you’d have no idea who would be coming in here. What you’d have is about one and-a-half hours of pure chaos.
Joe Ulatoski, VashonBePrepared volunteer
That means the majority of people should plan to support themselves for at least a couple of weeks after a major earthquake, Johnson said.
When troops arrive, it won’t be like a scene from a Hollywood movie where the military takes over. Instead, they would act at the discretion of local authorities, Johnson said.
“We are here to help, we’re not here to take over,” he said. “We just support with manpower and equipment as needed.”
On Wednesday (June 8) the Guard’s Vashon Island presence is expected to be more noticeable when a three-hour medical transport exercise begins. That’s when island volunteers will get hands-on experience loading and unloading an injured person from the helicopter.
The helicopter will land in the field by the camp, keep its blades rotating, then take off and circle before returning to land.
“We can’t just assume people are going to pick up (how to handle a medical transport) on the fly when it’s a life-and-death situation,” Johnson said about the importance of training in a non-emergency situation.
Similar scenarios will play out across the state this week as local, state and federal authorities participate in the four-day earthquake exercise that ends Friday (June 10). Pierce County will join the drill Wednesday (June 8).
An extensive list of what to include in an emergency kit and other earthquake preparedness tips can be found at bit.ly/statekit