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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sue Lani Madsen: When the Big One hits, you better have a network of relationships

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, will write opinion for the Spokesman-Review on an occasional basis.  Photo taken Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015.  JESSE TINSLEY (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Last November’s windstorm was minor league compared to the next mega-earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone fault. According to the analysis of June’s regional earthquake drill, the key to survival will be relationships.

Over 20,000 people from Washington, Oregon and Idaho participated in a four-day exercise called Cascadia Rising. The question was how well Washington’s disaster response plans would hold up under a hypothetical 9.0 magnitude earthquake. Last week, the final draft of the After Action Report was released by the Washington Military Department.

The conclusions were blunt. We’re not prepared. Not as a state, not as communities or businesses, not as families and individuals.

We’ve seen the destruction caused by subduction zone mega-earthquakes. In December 2004, a 9.1 subduction zone event under the Indian Ocean sent a tsunami around the world. The Cascadia Subduction Zone, where the Juan de Fuca Plate is forced under the North American continent, ruptures on a 300- to 500-year cycle. A Cascadia Subduction Zone rupture will affect coastal metropolitan areas from Vancouver, B.C., to Mendocino, California. The last big one was Jan. 26, 1700. We’re almost 17 years into the danger zone.

Earthquakes are natural hazards. The effect of broken buildings, bridges, roads and pipelines on human communities is the catastrophe. Although the Cascadia Rising scenario generated by FEMA focused on damage to infrastructure in Western Washington, Eastern Washington will also be affected. Distance from the fault will reduce but not eliminate ground movement. Buildings shaking, falling ceilings and fixtures will cause injuries. Grocery store shelves will be emptied, and the loss of transportation routes from major West Side warehouses will leave them empty until new supply routes can be cleared.

Spokane will have a short window to recover before becoming a response center for the region. It will take communication, coordination and improvisation. As Bob Wiese, coordinator for the Spokane-area amateur radio system, said, “If we do not know one another and each other’s strength as well as weaknesses, we cannot be expected to work seamlessly when we are called upon.”

Formal disaster plans rely on a free flow of information. Connecting across the state without telephone, cellphone or web-based communication left the exercise participants to rely on satellite phones and “ham” radio volunteers. Spokane County Emergency Management has recognized the value of a good working relationship with amateur radio since the formation of the first Spokane County Disaster Council in the early 1990s.

The Disaster Council has evolved into COAD – Community Organizations Active in Disaster. According to Ed Lewis, deputy director of emergency management for Spokane County, COAD has proved to be a critical asset for the region.

COAD includes representatives of typical public first-response agencies but also private organizations and businesses willing to make their resources available if needed. For example, Lewis said, during last year’s windstorm, faith-based and nongovernmental organizations in particular stepped up.

“The relationship piece is the key,” he said. “Not having to build a relationship in times of crisis lets you get down to the meat and potatoes of what needs to be accomplished on a quicker timeline.”

The Cascadia Rising report emphasizes the “value of habitual relationships” and the need for “flexibility under crisis.” It includes recommendations for rewriting chapters in the planning books, but the greatest value won’t lie in the words on the pages. No disaster has ever gone down by the book. A catastrophe is a multidisaster that overwhelms all available resources and plans.

And that’s why the most effective preparedness is strong relationships. Expecting a red truck with flashing lights to come to your rescue is not realistic in a catastrophe. Neighbors will be the first responders in their own small piece of the world, whether that’s a downtown Spokane condominium or a cluster of houses at a country crossroads.

To avoid the predicted “humanitarian disaster within 10 days” of a megaquake, the After Action Report says it will be necessary to think differently “to facilitate citizen/resident response.” It’s not just the planners who need to think differently. It means consciously developing habitual relationships with neighbors, being individually prepared, knowing who needs help and who can provide help. And be ready to improvise.

Columnist Sue Lani Madsen can be reached at or on Twitter @SueLaniMadsen.