Puyallup Herald

Is Puyallup prepared for a natural disaster? Officials test themselves in a full-scale exercise

Puyallup prepares for future disasters

The City of Puyallup hosts the Pierce County Emergency Management teams for simulated emergency disaster training, including a evacuation shelter at the Puyallup Nazarene Church.
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The City of Puyallup hosts the Pierce County Emergency Management teams for simulated emergency disaster training, including a evacuation shelter at the Puyallup Nazarene Church.

Early Wednesday morning, the news rolled in: the Puyallup River was flooding.

It wasn’t true — only part of an exercise — but Puyallup officials pretended it was the real deal.

“The whole thing is designed to test our shelter process,” said Tyler Eidson, Puyallup shelter manager for the exercise.

With the city’s Puyallup River prone to flooding, city officials say it’s important to prepare for the worst.

That’s why Puyallup Emergency Manager Kirstin Hofmann spent the past six months helping coordinate the exercise.

“There has not been a full-scale shelter exercise in the county for at least five years,” Hofmann said.

The full-scale exercises are so rare, in fact, that when other agencies found out what Hofmann was working on, they wanted to be a part of it. There were more than 100 participants, representing the cities of Orting, Bellevue, Seattle, Lakewood, Kent and other organizations such as the Washington State Fair, the Puyallup School District and the American Red Cross.

The last major flooding of the Puyallup River happened almost a decade ago, when more than 40,000 Pierce County residents were urged to evacuate their homes, The News Tribune’s Jason Hagey reported in January 2009.

Rescue workers evacuate residents from a flooded neighborhood along McCutcheon Rd. near Orting, Wash. Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2009. The rapidly rising Puyallup River forced hundreds of people in the area from their homes. Ted S. Warren AP

Puyallup residents can rest easy knowing that if it ever happens again, plans are in place — and the city is working out the kinks.

So how did they fare, exactly?

After the call came in, city officials gathered early Wednesday at its Emergency Operations Center, located at 2200 39th Ave. SE in Puyallup, which serves as headquarters during a disaster such as a flood.

There, they formed teams, from communications to logistics to planning. Their objectives?

  • Ensure the safety of all responders

  • Initiate evacuation and sheltering actions

  • Activate and open a shelter to house about 75 people

  • Prepare an action plan for following shift to pick up where staff left off

During the exercise, staff placed a map of the flooded Puyallup area on the wall and monitored the river’s rise. In a true disaster, they wouldn’t know exactly when the river would crest, but they try to make a prediction.

They also wouldn’t know how long the flooding would last but must prepare for the next operational crew to take over. Once one group’s shift is over, the next crew must be prepared to take the reigns seamlessly.

Public information officer Brenda Fritsvold acted as part of the communications team Wednesday. In the event of a real emergency, citizen calls are diverted to a call center at the EOC, where they are then directed to Fritsvold. Those questions could range from “I hear the river is flooding. Is that true?” to “Where do I go for shelter?”

In an emergency, all updated information would be posted to the city’s social media accounts and housed on its website.

On Wednesday, people in need of shelter — in this case, volunteer actors — gathered at the Puyallup Nazarene Church at 1026 7th Ave SW. The Nazarene Church, in addition to the Bethany Baptist Church at 713 S. Hill Park Drive in Puyallup, are real shelters the city would use in an emergency. The Washington State Fair also would serve as a shelter for farm animals.

Inside the Nazarene Church, registration tables and cots were set up. In an emergency, displaced people would be given meals — three per day, depending on how long they stay. A kids play room also would be provided.

The shelter actors were social workers who volunteered to play a part. They were given fake names and roles. Their roles were meant to test the city’s response to various needs of shelter residents.

Trixy Petaia of Fife waits on her cot as fellow disaster actors arrive at the emergency shelter exercise in the Puyallup Nazarene Church on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. Petaia grew up in American Samoa and has lived through two hurricanes, including one that required her family going to shelter after the roof of their house was torn off. “It is very scary. And preparation is key,” she said. Tony Overman toverman@theolympian.com

“The reason we do this is because if you don’t practice, you don’t know what to do in the event of an emergency,” Hofmann said.

Some shelter actors screamed and yelled. Some pounded on the beds. Some brought pets — which are allowed — who had accidents on the floor. Some picked fights. One shelter actor spoke only Korean, and staff had to request an interpreter from the EOC.

One shelter actor, volunteer Amanda Henry, was given multiple roles. In one of them, Henry, who is disabled, was to tell shelter staff her motorized chair lost power.

It’s important for shelter staff to know how to accommodate all people, Henry said.

“(It’s important) we know what to do,” she said. “So in an actual disaster, you’re not freaked out.”

At the end of the exercise, staff debriefed.

“I would call it a successful exercise,” Hofmann said. “A couple of the things that we heard is that people were really excited to actually practice … I think it’s great for people in Puyallup to know what we’re doing to be prepared.”

Allison Needles: 253-597-8507, @herald_allison