Sound Off: Our Katrina may surprise us

We all watched in horror as the system broke down during the devastating disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Five days after the storm hit the Gulf Coast, many residents were still without food and water, living in squalor in dangerous, inhumane conditions. Thousands were stranded on the streets of New Orleans because officials failed to plan for a serious levee breach and the federal response was agonizingly slow.

Ironically, disaster experts had long predicted that the city, which sits mostly below sea level, would face unprecedented devastation after an immense hurricane. The National Hurricane Center even provided officials with several days’ forecast of the storm’s path. And yet, local, state and federal responders were not adequately prepared.

We’ve got our share of potential natural disasters in Washington. The scariest to me are the disasters that provide very little advanced notice. We live in one of the most seismically active regions, part of the Pacific Rim of Fire. In the United States, Washington is second only to California in the number and severity of earthquakes. These disasters come without the satellite and Doppler radar images that provide warnings of hurricanes, and yet the results could be just as devastating.

A recent state study of the impact of a local earthquake paints a horrifying picture. More than 1,600 people could lose their lives during a major move of the Seattle fault. Another 24,000 could face injury. Property damage would be widespread throughout the central Puget Sound region, totaling more than $33 billion. And the Seattle fault is only one of several that crisscross Puget Sound. Another major fault cuts right across south Whidbey Island, and at least three other faults run under Island, Skagit and Snohomish counties. Any of them could jolt our area at any time.

Of course, communities on the water are also prone to earthquake-generated tsunamis. We had a high-profile tsunami warning along the Pacific Coast this summer and the performance of our response systems was mixed. Some of the warning and communications equipment worked well and some failed. Further study and review is under way.

But it’s not just the ocean beaches that are at risk. In our area, scientists have found evidence that in the past, tsunamis have come down the Strait of Juan de Fuca and slammed into Whidbey Island and the east side of Puget Sound. We will need to review our warning and evacuation plans for that scenario, too.

Washington officials are going to do everything we can to ensure we are prepared. First, we will not simply wait for the cavalry to arrive. Gov. Christine Gregoire has already directed the Emergency Management Division not to expect any federal government assistance in the first 48 to 72 hours of a major natural disaster. We will plan our own first response.

As the Legislature begins our comprehensive review of state disaster response, we do have recent studies that give us a place to start. In 2004, a state review of emergency management preparedness found that differences in organization, staffing and funding among county and city programs compromises an effective statewide disaster response. We may need to step up the state’s commitment to local programs, including additional training and education. But we will also be looking at the state’s own capacity to coordinate and direct local efforts.

The Senate Transportation Committee, which I chair, has already held one hearing on the earthquake vulnerabilities in our bridges, highways and other infrastructure. We know that the bridges and ferry docks that serve our island communities are vulnerable to failure, and of course the Alaskan Way Viaduct and state Route 520 bridge in Seattle are one big quake away from collapse. We made significant investments to fix these structures last legislative session because we know that if any of these vital links tumble down, entire communities would be cut off.

An additional legislative hearing is scheduled for Tacoma on Oct. 27. More information is available on www.sdc.wa.gov.

Let Hurricane Katrina be a warning to us all. It’s just another real-world example of the well-known saying, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”  

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, Democrat from Camano Island, represents the 10th Legislative District which includes Whidbey and Camano islands, and portions of Snohomish and Skagit counties.

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