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Megaquake rehearsal highlights prominence of Shelton command center

Washington National Guard X-ray technicians Spec. Holly Bench, top, and Spec. Jorie Fernandez demonstrate how a mobile X-ray machine works in a field hospital during Cascadia Rising drill at the Mason County Fairgrounds on Thursday.
Washington National Guard X-ray technicians Spec. Holly Bench, top, and Spec. Jorie Fernandez demonstrate how a mobile X-ray machine works in a field hospital during Cascadia Rising drill at the Mason County Fairgrounds on Thursday. Staff photographer

The largest earthquake and tsunami drill in Northwest history continued Thursday at a critical command post in Shelton that will serve five Washington counties when “the big one” strikes.

The Mason County Fairgrounds will host the main operations for Thurston, Mason, Grays Harbor, Lewis and Pacific counties. The site includes Sanderson Field, which is the five-county area’s largest aircraft runway that is near the coast but less likely to suffer tsunami damage.

If the Shelton site is out of commission, the backup airfield would be Bremerton National Airport, said Lt. Col Clay Braun of the Washington National Guard.

“Shelton is a very critical place for us,” he said.

Thursday’s Cascadia Rising drill in Mason County included a mix of National Guardsmen, Army soldiers and Air Force airmen — and offered a snapshot of the bases that will spring up statewide in the case of a major natural disaster.

Service personnel manned tents for medical care and X-rays. Helicopters dropped supplies via parachute while a handful of paratroopers practiced their landings. These airdrops will be critical when trying to reach isolated pockets of people.

The Shelton operations center will coordinate efforts alongside the state’s other bases. Military personnel will check roads and bridges while also assisting local law enforcement and rescue workers. The base will house a mobile high-frequency radio system that can keep communication alive when cell towers and phone lines are down.

Some of the soldiers at Thursday’s drill in Shelton have assisted in past natural disasters such as the 2014 Oso mudslide and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast.

Lt. Col. Adam Iwaszuk of the 96th Troop Command said his experience in New Orleans revealed at least one key survival tip for the public in any disaster — whether it’s a flood, storm, earthquake or tornado.

“You should know an escape route,” he said. “The citizens need to be prepared for what they’re likely to be subject to.”

Washington National Guard Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty urges the public to stock up on emergency supplies such as food, water and medicine to help make the military’s job easier. He said the Guard will continue to train and ensure a proper disaster response.

“Our intent is to keep revisiting this until an actual earthquake strikes us,” he said. “Hopefully, that’s not for a long time.”

Co-sponsored by FEMA, the Cascadia Rising drill began Tuesday and wraps up Friday. It was designed to allow the area to practice emergency response to a disaster involving the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a faultline that stretches between Northern California and Vancouver Island.

The zone has produced earthquakes with a 9.0 magnitude or higher at intervals of 400 to 600 years — with the last one occurring in January 1700, according to the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.

And the stakes are high. Washington state alone could face thousands of deaths and injuries. Emergency responders also estimate that at least 1.27 million people could end up without adequate food and water in a worst-case scenario.

Hospitals and nursing homes could see a combined 80,000 medical evacuees. Main roads such as Interstate 5 and U.S. 101 would likely be unnavigable.

“It could happen right now. It could happen 500 years from now,” said Lt. Col. Braun about the possible large-scale disaster. “This is our rehearsal.”

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