Islanders prepare for disaster

With a fault-line capable of doing more damage to the islands than the infamous Cascadia subduction zone running just south of Lopez, San Juan County Department of Emergency Management wants islanders to be prepared for the worst.

“If you went to elementary school in Washington, you probably heard ‘Washington is earthquake country’ a lot,” DEM Assistant Director Dave Halloran said. “This is an active seismic area. Probably lower incidents [than California] perhaps, potentially higher consequences.”

More than 50 people crowded into the fire hall on Wednesday, Dec. 9 for a presentation by Halloran about the hazards facing island residents and how to be prepared. This was the first in a series of monthly meetings titled Be Ready Orcas.

“I consider this sort of like disaster prep 101. This is not going to answer every question that you might have, hopefully, it’ll answer a couple,” Holloran said. “Hopefully we can address those other things in this continued series.”

In a survey released by DEM, 62 percent of respondents – of which there were 120 – had a household preparedness plan in case of an emergency. Only 33 percent said they had participated in preparation with their neighbors.

“While we may be individually prepared, maybe neighborhoods preparing or getting together as a group is an area we might look for improvement,” Halloran said.

An earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone, which runs from the western side of Vancouver Island down to Northern California, is well-known to residents of the Pacific Northwest. Holloran said that emergency response to that earthquake – which is predicted to occur every 300 to 500 years, with the last one being in January 1700 – will likely be massive.

“It will be, certainly, a national response, if not international scale response and assist. If we have a Devil’s Mountain — it’s more of a regional thing, so we can probably expect more help than we can accommodate,” Holloran said. “Even though we might feel the shaking more from a Devil’s Mountain earthquake. The worst scenario as far as isolation, damage to the power grid, things like that, lifelines the worst scenario is the CSZ earthquake.”

Fires, wind, winter storms, earthquakes and tsunamis are the most obvious natural threats facing the islands. The resiliency islanders have built up in the face of frequent wind and winter storms has been beneficial, according to Halloran.

“There’s a big commonality in the wind storms, the winter storms and the earthquake that lead us to long-term isolation,” he said. He emphasized that islanders should have enough food, water and emergency supplies to get them through at least two weeks.

With an earthquake as large and destructive as the Cascadia subduction zone quake has been historically, Holloran said it is likely electricity could take three-to-six months to come back on and ferry terminals, roads and bridges could be out of service until they could be inspected.

“If we take that individual preparedness and build that foundation not only for yourselves but it builds into a strong island community and frankly I think that embarking on this would have payoff beyond and into the community,” Holloran said. “I have no doubt that Orcas Island residents, after a big disaster, will respond with energy and great force.”

Be Ready Orcas will host its second meeting featuring members of Orcas Island Fire and Rescue in February. Watch the Sounder for more details on that event.

For more information about disaster preparation in San Juan County, visit