National Guard Trains for Monster Pacific Northwest Earthquake

The 'big one' could claim as many as 20,000 casualties in the area.

by Jim Camden, The Spokesman-Review / June 24, 2015
National Guard response would be key after an earthquake. Shutterstock

(TNS) – National guardsmen from Spokane to Seattle to Grays Harbor spent the last week practicing for “the Big One” – a quake so big it would devastate some part of the Interstate 5 corridor between British Columbia and Northern California.

As many as 20,000 casualties. Power and telephones knocked out. Bridges and overpasses destroyed. Communities isolated. Supplies available only if planes and helicopters have a place to land.

The practice was with a virtual quake reaching 9.0 on the Richter scale, hitting the Cascadia Subduction Zone somewhere along its 800-mile length.

Geologists say such a quake occurs every 300 to 500 years on that geological fault in the Pacific Ocean off the Northwest coast, and the last one was 315 years ago.

“When this event occurs, it will be the worst natural disaster in the country’s history,” Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, commander of the Washington National Guard, said Tuesday outside the portable headquarters set up in the old Mason County Fairgrounds near Shelton. “If we’re lucky, our great-grandchildren are going to have to deal with it.”

But it could happen anytime, so some Guard units used their annual training for Evergreen Tremor, a weeklong exercise that ends today.

Sanderson Field in Mason County has a runway long enough for the Air Force’s big C-17 cargo planes to land and take off, as well as a second runway and ramp space for helicopters. Geologists say it’s in an area that’s likely to survive the worst of a massive quake, and would be the closest large landing field for rescue operations and supplies to the devastated Puget Sound and Washington coast regions.

Daugherty said Idaho would be critical for ferrying supplies and troops into Eastern Washington, where they could be airlifted from Fairchild Air Force Base and Grant County Airport in Moses Lake. About 50,000 troops from around the country would be needed “to show up and help put things back together” and they, too, could come through Sanderson and the old fairgrounds, which would be established as a portable headquarters and communications center.

None of that was set up for Evergreen Tremor, which was planned more than a year ago. More troops and more equipment will be brought to the Northwest next year from around the country for Cascadia Rising, a more extensive practice for a major quake that will involve all branches of the armed forces and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

This year, Guard units brought their computers and portable Internet systems to the fairgrounds to coordinate with others units or emergency management offices at Fairchild, Grays Harbor, Seattle and Camp Murray.

It helped to build relationships for Guard units shifting from their overseas missions to domestic operations at home, said Maj. Tim Ozmer, a former Spokane Valley resident.

But the Guard did send one item to show to congressional staffers who got a full briefing on the exercise, an M1135 Stryker, known as an NBCRV, for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Reconnaissance Vehicle. The eight-wheeled vehicle is essentially an armor-plated science lab that can bring a protected crew into a contaminated area, test samples and report back to headquarters.

The crew drove it over from its regular home in Yakima, an eight-hour trip in a vehicle that hits 70 mph downhill but only 35 mph uphill. And there were two stops to refill the Stryker’s 53-gallon tanks with diesel.

Daugherty said the Washington Guard’s largest unit, the 81st Brigade, is hoping to make a complete transition from its heavy armored equipment – tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles – to the lighter and more versatile Strykers. Not all would be the specially outfitted M1135, but any Stryker would be more useful at navigating the downed bridges and overpasses left by a major quake than tanks and Bradleys, he said.


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