Is the Puget Sound region – home to more than 4.5 million people – prepared for a disaster?
That’s a tough one to answer comprehensively, many emergency preparedness experts admit.
While the “big one” may be tricky to predict, experts know this much for sure and certain — the region is prone to natural disasters.
And for the Seattle area, fractured as it is with fault lines, earthquakes top the list.
Overlooking the valley, mighty Mount Rainier has been dormant since its last eruption around 1100 AD. But its activity – combined with its proximity to Seattle and Tacoma – would make any eruption there one of the most dangerous in the world, according to the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior’s Decade Volcano list.
Such potential events concern Dr. Stephen Flynn of Northeastern University, a professor and one of the world’s experts on disaster resilience. Dealing with disaster is sort of his business and the source of his intense study.
Flynn recently visited Seattle to talk with local leaders about the region’s readiness for a catastrophic event. Flynn, leading a major study on the aftermath of SuperStorm Sandy that will be presented to Congress and the Obama administration, is soliciting responses to his study from leaders throughout the country.
Upon his review, Flynn concludes, leaders in the Puget Sound Region are paying attention to the warning signs, but the region, and notably its residents, is no more fully prepared to deal with a disaster than are other parts of the country. Outside of emergency management professionals, too few of us, he observed, spend any time considering how prepared our communities are.
“Your emergency management community is about as on top of it as anywhere in our country, in terms of understanding the kinds of risk and working to prepare for those risks,” Flynn said. “(But) your area, like much of the country, is not where it needs to be.
“Increasingly, as citizens, we expect the professionals to take care of this. … When something goes wrong, we pay for emergency managers … fire and police … they’re supposed to fix this stuff,” Flynn said.
“The reality is — it certainly came through from the Katrina and Sandy experiences — that the first-responders are almost always your family, your neighbor or the stranger near you. There’s not enough professionals around,” Flynn said.
Flynn said he believes the lessons learned from SuperStorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina can help the region better prepare for such an event.
But it won’t be easy.
While cities such as Kent and Auburn are equipped to mobilize in the event of a more isolated flood or mudslide, the region as a whole needs to better prepare for a widespread disaster.
Flynn hopes the country, region by region, broadens its commitment to become better prepared for these events, both in terms of negating the risks and recovering quickly from a crisis.
It’s not a matter of “if” disaster strikes, but when, Flynn says.
“It will happen. We will have a major disaster in the Puget Sound area. It is almost certainly going to be a major earthquake,” he said. “I state that out front because, to the larger extent … every part of our country has gone through a disaster.
“We wait until they happen, and we cope well when they happen. … But what we know is they are less frequent than we often presume them to be, and there’s a lot more we know about them now and what we can do about them in terms of reducing their impact.”
Regions need to better prepared for a disaster, considering the geographical dependency on infrastructure, the power grid, water, communication and extended transportation, Flynn cautioned.
The Seattle region, a global leader in technology and advanced manufacturing, is also major military hub that depends on the reliable operation of critical infrastructures in the energy, transportation, communications and IT sectors. A major disaster could endanger millions of lives and cause major disruptions to our communities and businesses, as well as undermine the capacity for the U.S. military to carry out its national security mission, Flynn noted.
“(For instance) Seattle and Tacoma are the umbilical cord to Alaska in terms of all its logistical needs,” he said. “If you get knocked down, then Alaska will feel it.”
But, in the aftermath of a disaster, we somehow recover.
“I can always find things that I wished we had done up front to basically reduce the mayhem that was caused. But I always marvel at our capacity to work our way through these things and get back on our feet,” Flynn said. “My message is we just try to do both. We should spend equal measures and efforts to anticipate and prepare and reduce the cost of these events as well as pat ourselves on the back about how quickly we bounce back.”
Beyond the professional community, residents need to take more personal responsibility for emergency preparedness. Not everyone is risk literate, Flynn acknowledges, but for those who are physically able to become trained, ready and willing to help their neighbors in times of trouble, it’s a civic duty.
“They will almost certainly happen,” Flynn said of man-made or natural disasters. “We just hope they don’t happen tomorrow.”