Orcas prepares for “the big one”

As islanders, it is imperative for residents to have food, water and other necessities stockpiled to last them for at least two weeks following a disaster. This and other suggestions were shared with an audience of more than 150 people gathered in Sea View Theatre on March 7 for a disaster preparation event coordinated by Orcas Food Co-op grocery manager Natalie Menacho.

“If you’re not able to take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of your community,” said Brendan Cowan, director of the San Juan County Department of Emergency Management, who facilitated the discussion. “It’s really important; … the single most important thing you can do.”

Though the islands are safe from regular weather-related disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes, they are more susceptible to earthquakes and tsunamis.

“Of all those, earthquakes is the most significant,” Cowan said. “[Tsunamis are] not terribly worrisome, unless you happen to be sitting right on Crescent Beach.”

Everyone in the region is well aware of the “big one,” a highly anticipated earthquake expected to surpass a 9.0 on the Richter Scale. A quake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone has the potential to affect everyone along the West Coast, from Orcas down to San Francisco. The DEM wants the community to be prepared.

Other presenters at the event included: Orcas Island Fire and Rescue Fire Chief Williams; San Juan County building inspector Jason Hensel; Oras Power and Light Cooperative, Manager of Operations and Engineering Russell Guerry, and Independent Consultant Jay Kimball; Reverence Permaculture and Preparedness owner and operator Nathan Donnelly; representing Odd Fellows, Michael Riordan, Barry Neville, Michael Hurwicz and Eric Morris.

Williams commended his fire district, comprised of seven fire stations across the island with station 21 as headquarters. The district has 10 staff, 75 volunteer firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians, and they serve a population that fluctuates between 3,000 to 10,000 people depending on the time of year.

In the event of an emergency, the neighborhood fire station is intended to become station command. Though the volunteers do an amazing job under normal conditions, Williams said, “We’re going to rely on you to support yourself and support your neighbors.”

Hensel introduced himself as the friendly neighborhood building inspector, suggesting that anyone whose house was built prior to 1985 should consider having an inspection for seismic stability.

“Your house, if it slides off, that’s not good,” he said. “Let’s maybe take a look at the house your living in.”

Thankfully, Hensel said, though we live in a “high hazard” location, most houses in the islands are wood frame and are likely to withstand an earthquake.

Guerry and Kimball shared what OPALCO has done to prepare for power outages, which, for the most part, has been due to wind. Roughly 87 percent of powerlines in the county are underground, the only exception are main transition lines which are too high power to be buried. Additionally, OPALCO is investing in alternative energies (solar and tidal) and pathways for providing power that can allow for redundancies in case of an outage.

During an outage caused by an earthquake, power could potentially be out for several weeks or months.

“For the most part, our power supply is reliable,” said Cowan. “When you think about OPALCO, commend them for that work.”

Donnelly suggested neighborhoods gather together for disaster planning potlucks.

“Everything we’re learning tonight is going to be useless if you don’t use your brain,” Donnelly said. “When things go sideways, you really get to see what kind of community you’re in.”

The Odd Fellows presenters, led by Riordan, explained that they’re preparing for disaster by being trained in first aid/CPR, setting up communication networks, engineering water filtration systems and finding out how the group can be most beneficial during an emergency event. This benefit includes, hopefully, being able to use the Odd Fellows Hall as a disaster shelter.

To wrap up the official discussion, before a question and answer segment during which most of the audience left, Menacho said that the Food Co-op is hosting a disaster preparation member sale. The sale is on all United Natural Foods (UNFI) products, and the co-op is providing both wholesale pricing for all members and wholesale price plus 20 percent pricing for non-members until March 23.