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Practicing for the big shake

5:40 pm July 2nd, 2012

There was no cause for alarm, but there was plenty of reason to think about earthquake survival during a multi-county, two-day disaster-response drill early this month.
Pierce County’s Department of Emergency Management and representatives of 22 cities, towns and emergency organizations in the county participated in the exercise June 5-6. They were rehearsing their reactions to a “pretend” 7.1 magnitude earthquake on the Tacoma Fault. Dubbed Operation Pine Cone, the Pierce County drill was part of a larger exercise called Evergreen Quake, which included King, Kitsap, Skagit, Snohomish and Thurston counties along with Pierce and tribal, state and federal agencies. The beginning of the mock responses was 24 hours after the first simulated quake hit the Puget Sound area.
Unsuspecting visitors to state emergency management web sites might have been startled by a mock press release that, while clearly labeled an exercise, read like a report on a real earthquake disaster: “The State Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at Camp Murray was activated at 9 a.m. on June 4 in response to five major earthquakes (in) the Pacific Northwest region. The earthquakes included the 6.7 Seattle Fault earthquake, 5.7 Devils Mountain fault earthquake, 7.4 South Whidbey Fault earthquake, 7.1 Tacoma Fault earthquake, and the 7.2 Olympia-Nisqually Fault earthquake. The series of earthquakes has caused significant loss of lives and injuries, as well as extensive damage to homes, businesses, public utilities and infrastructure. Transportation and communication systems have been disrupted and hospitals have been overwhelmed … The Department of Commerce reports that over a million people are still without power. Multiple shelters have been opened throughout the area … A boil water order has been issued for Kitsap, Pierce, Thurston, and King counties.”
“Pierce County participates in emergency exercises every year to keep staff trained and systems up to date,” said Steve Bailey, the county’s emergency management. “The Operation Pine Cone and Evergreen Quake exercises are a rare opportunity for a large number of partners to practice interdependencies and communications that will be the backbone of an effective response to a catastrophic event.”
The Pierce County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was activated for both days of the exercise and functioned as if a major earthquake had occurred, officials said. Other participating agencies included the Mount Rainier Chapter of American Red Cross, Pierce County Citizen Corps Council, MultiCare, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, several fire, school and water districts, and Law Enforcement Support Agency, which runs the countywide 9-1-1 emergency communications system.
Numerous agencies tested their plans for how they’d continue operating in the wake of a disaster. Some agencies conducted tabletop exercises leading up to the bigger one.
The last sizable earthquake that affected Pierce County was in March 2001. Homes and commercial buildings were damaged, as were roads.
According to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), most of the toll on homes was collapse chimneys. The majority of chimney damage was is in Pierce, King and Thurston counties.
Damage with a monetary value well into the multiple millions of dollars was recorded.
A 4.2 magnitude earthquake was felt last November in Eatonville and surrounding areas. Its epicenter was about 18 miles south of Elbe. No damage to structures or roads was reported, but people a relatively wide area reported feeling shaking for a few seconds.

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