The Emergency Management Office on board Naval Air Station Whidbey Island hums with activity. Frequent announcements break the concentrated efforts of personnel trying to cope with the aftermath of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone. The quake has left Whidbey Island completely isolated – Deception Pass Bridge is cut off, ferry service is shut down and communications are sporadic at best.
It may sound like the plot of a Hollywood disaster movie, but the scenario being played out last week on NAS Whidbey Island and across the rest of the state is well grounded in truth and probabilities. It’s all part of an overall exercise called Cascadia Rising, conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in conjunction with Washington state agencies and the military.
It’s something Shawn Lightfritz, instalation training officer, has been working on for more than two years and has been rolled into NASWI’s annual disaster preparedness drill called Citadel Rumble.
“Planning for Cascadia Rising started two years ago in Olympia with the state,” Lightfritz said. “We’ve been involved in that from the beginning, both at the Naval Station and at Navy Region Northwest level. We helped develop all the materials in conjunction with the state and FEMA.”
Cascadia Rising simulates what could happen in the event of a major earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which stretches about 700 miles from northern Vancouver Island in British Columbia to Cape Mendocino, Calif. It is one of three faults running under Whidbey Island and separates the Juan De Fuca and North America Plates. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the last major earthquake along the CSZ occurred approximately 300 years ago, in 1700. Geologists estimate these catastrophic quakes occur approximately every 100 to 600 years, leading experts to believe there will be a major earthquake along the CSZ sooner rather than later.
It is Lightfritz’s job to come up with realistic scenarios to prepare Navy personnel how to respond should fiction become fact.
“I come up with maps that I’ve developed and that’s what I give to the emergency management team,” he said. “I reveal the pieces to them piecemeal, to mimic what they would be getting from the city and the state.
“The state actually worked out a lot of the information we used,” Lightfritz continued. “We have flood zones identified, we have transportation impacts identified, tsunami impacts, the roads – which bridges were damaged, which ones survived – and those pieces we’ve been feeding in as well.”
What happens at NAS Whidbey Island is just one part of the overall picture. Lightfritz said the Navy works closely with Island County Emergency Management to coordinate the pieces of the make-believe disaster so everyone is dealing with the same scenario.
Since it is entirely conceivable the Navy would be among the first to establish reliable community, the exercise gives personnel on base the opportunity to practice coordinating efforts that would assist residents all over Whidbey Island.
“We would become a Base Support Installation, which is where we would be collecting incoming supplies from FEMA and other government organizations to distribute to the local communities,” Lightfritz said.
Part of the scenario included an exercise in which a Blackhawk helicopter from Joint Base Lewis McChord landed outside the Oak Harbor Public Works facility, where military personnel simulated handing off medical supplies to civilian authorities, a critical aspect to the military’s role in the event of a real disaster.
“What we’re doing in our scenario is planning how we would receive that [cargo], stage those supplies and then work with entities to then distribute that on and off base to get those supplies where they’re needed,” said NAS Whidbey Island commanding officer Capt. Geoff Moore.
Of course, while Lightfritz gets to plan the disaster exercise and all the situations thrown at Navy personnel, it is Gary Jandzinski’s job to execute how those scenarios handled. Jandzinski is the Emergency Management Officer for NAS Whidbey Island. He said the success of any operation, whether a drill or not, hinges on communication.
“It all comes down to coordination. We try to pick the most robust communication path we can find,” he said, explaining how the base dealt with a scenario in which there was no electronic or mechanical means of communication.
“We lost absolutely all communication except for runners,” Jandzinski said. “We literally put a security person in a patrol car and went down to the Oak Harbor Emergency Operations Center and discussed current status on the base and they provided current status about what was going on in town.”
Communication is paramount, especially in the first few hours of a disaster, because that is when Capt. Moore can step in under his immediate response authority to provide assistance in life-threatening situations and instances where property damage is imminent.
“The nice thing about Team Whidbey is our daily interaction with all the first responder forces and our coordination between leadership; our communication is outstanding,” Moore said from his temporary office in the EOC. “So we’re going to be able to identify and communicate all those issues and respond as fast as we can.”
“Verifying those needs in the first few hours is critical,” Jandzinski said. “After that, it becomes whenever we can get together on the phone or whenever we can pass information by whatever means we have, including ham radio. We use whatever means we can to actually communicate once, twice, three times a day.
”We’ve had a major earthquake,” he continued. “We really don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the country right now because we’ve lost communications, so being ready for our military tasking is critical for us.”
Everyone, civilians and military alike, should always prepare as best they can for a natural disaster. But following typical Red Cross recommendations to have three days’ worth of supplies doesn’t cut it on Whidbey Island, Jandzinski said.
“We try very hard to educate people to be personally prepared,” he said. “Three days of food and water is not good when you live on an island, because it’s going to take longer, especially with a region-wide event like this. Transportation all over the place is broken so bad that it could be much, much longer.”
Lessons learned from exercises like Cascade Rising and Citadel Rumble could one day literally save lives on Whidbey Island. That’s the biggest take-away, say participants.
“This is a great opportunity for us to work our processes, our procedures, our responses,” said Moore. “With everybody actually talking to the people that we would in the real world, that’s the best thing about this exercise.”
“The scenario was good,” Jandzinski said. “It kind of tied our hands pretty well. It gives us all a lot of things to chew on and what we’re trying to do is come up with a lot of fixes as rapidly as possible.”
“That’s the biggest part of my job,” Lightfritz said. “The assessment of what we did, how well we did and what we need to improve, then coming up with an improvement plan and determining how we’re going to get to that point.”