The earth shakes. Walls buckle as the ground heaves and shudders. Buildings collapse, crushing the contents inside and trapping people in surroundings that were once familiar but are now jumbled and disorienting.
Frantic, loved ones search for one another, hoping, praying, believing that everyone has escaped the rubble unscathed.
Central Whidbey residents may believe such a disaster is unlikely. But the town is in the middle of an earthquake zone – and our part of Washington is about due for the next big one to strike.
A structure-damaging quake rating higher than 7 on the Richter scale typically hits about once every 300 to 500 years. The last one struck 312 years ago.
Order out of chaos
Into this mix of destruction and disorder step first responders and volunteers, providing some sort of order in the ensuing chaos.
In the best-case scenario, they follow a comprehensive emergency-response plan crafted and implemented by town officials that is designed to minimize loss of life and damage to property.
The Town of Coupeville is currently working on creating its own road map for handling a disaster. It will provide a framework for preparing for, responding to, and recovering from emergencies.
The plan will help ensure that the town’s elected officials and employees in leadership positions – as well as trained volunteers – know who to call, where to go and what to do.
Even a town of 1,831 needs a comprehensive plan, said Eve Parrish, the town’s volunteer emergency-planning coordinator.
One reason is that if there is a big regional disaster, like a major earthquake, Coupeville is probably not going to be first on the list for emergency assistance, Parrish said. And having to wait and rely on others to step in and provide aid is something that Coupeville would like to avoid.
“We don’t want to be sitting waiting for the Red Cross or the county to come help,” Mayor Nancy Conard said. “With some groundwork, we could start helping ourselves.”
Island County has its own emergency plan, but it assumes that each municipality will have its own, more detailed plan in place, Parrish said.
Next month a draft of the plan will be sent to the state’s Emergency Management Department for review. It will be reviewed for compliance and comments provided to the town for consideration.
Toward the end of the year, the plan will be tested through a comprehensive tabletop exercise that will involve state, county, and local entities and will include key town employees and the volunteer neighborhood emergency teams. An after-action review and report will determine if there are areas that need improvement.
Once the state approves the plan, Coupeville will become the first point of contact for state and federal aid, allowing town officials to connect directly to governmental resources.
With such a small number of elected officials and staff, Coupeville can be “nimble” in its response, Conard said. It will take only a few phone calls to initiate emergency response activities, she said.
An accepted plan also will open up federal disaster-aid coffers, Parrish said, enabling the town to be reimbursed for any money spent on disaster response and recovery efforts.
Every four years, under the direction of the Coupeville marshal, the plan will be updated.
What is needed
You can’t prevent an earthquake, but you can prepare for it, said Doug Gibbons, research scientist assistant for the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.
The best strategy is to be proactive, he said.
“The 2001 Nisqually event near Olympia was a wake-up call,” Gibbons said. “It was just on the border of being strong enough to cause damage.”
Coupeville’s plan will include an outline for managing communications, continuity of government and emergency shelters and food. It also will include neighborhood emergency teams and a plan for sheltering pets.
The neighborhood emergency teams already have begun training for a disaster. Coupeville Councilwoman Molly Hughes, who also is a member of a neighborhood team, said members periodically practice what they learn.
For example, at Coupeville’s Memorial Day parade in May, team members practiced communicating by emergency radio.
In crafting its plan, the town should take into consideration the possible need to help people who live beyond town limits, Parrish said.
“A lot of folks look to Coupeville for their support, and you can’t just ignore that,” she said.
And like Island County’s plan that counts on each municipality to have its own detailed plan in place, Coupeville’s plan counts on residents to have their own family emergency plans, and includes outreach and education efforts to encourage each household to make such a plan.
“It is important for local residents to be able to take care of themselves,” Parrish said. “Once you live here a while, it sinks in that you live on an island. Transportation could be cut off, and we don’t have the population to demand a priority response.”
While the goal is to be prepared for a major disaster, the plan helps prepare the town for much smaller things too, such as windstorms, extremely cold weather and even an accident that involves hazardous materials.
“You can prepare all day long for the big one,” Coupeville Marshal Lance Davenport said. “But you also need to be able to handle the smaller things like power outages.”