NORTH BEND – The U.S. Coast Guard is preparing for the "really big one," where the worst-case scenario includes a destroyed Oregon coast.
The Coast Guard's Air Station Sector North Bend is conducting its mock-disaster assimilation this week, working out where strengths and weaknesses exist in their plans.
Lieutenant Wes Jones said the first day of training on Tuesday consisted of what to do moments after the 9.2 quake hits. The goal is to establish communication and then assess the damage and casualties.
“We meet at the armory in North Bend,” Jones said. “Then we set up communication with our outlying units, all the boat stations, our district office in Seattle, as well as every sector in our district which are Sector Columbia River, Sector Puget Sound and Sector Humboldt Bay in California.”
Part of the simulation included limited communications and technology, which consisted of pen and paper, and one satellite phone.
“We will use that phone to see how many Coast Guard members died, how many Coast Guard dependents have died, how many assets have been destroyed, how many are available, and then work from there,” Jones said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided the Coast Guard with an estimation for how devastating the quake will be. Those statistics showed that 17,000 lives would be lost, another 27,000 would be injured, and 2.5 million people would be displaced.
Jones explained that North Bend's two main roads have bridges, and state highways 38 and 42 also have bridges. After the quake, “North Bend will turn into an island.”
“We will have to sustain ourselves and our people up to six months,” Jones said. “That's what we're planning for today and are testing that plan so we are absolutely prepared.”
Day one also included a mere 10 Coast Guard members in the operations room, which Jones said is ideal because many members may be on the other side of town and not be able to make it to the armory for days depending on downed power lines and land slides.
“There are parts of town on sand dunes, which will all be liquefied and flattened,” he said, explaining that the terrain will be all but unrecognizable.
As the days move on and communication is established, along with internet, the next step is to find out how destructive the earthquake and tsunami are and whether or not Portland and the northern parts of California are gone because if they are “we will be here a while on our own, because outside response will focus on the greater populous — and that is not Coos Bay.”
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The Coast Guard will also evaluate where to get fuel. It won't be from the North Bend Airport, because it is at sea level and will either be under water or destroyed. The only airport on the coast above sea level is in Newport, but Jones said because it is so close to the coast “it might just slide in, to be honest.”
Lieutenant Matthew Poore has been working on this disaster simulation for the past year and said that their next focus would be to assess status of helicopters, helicopter maintenance and fuel, and where to find a source for it.
“After we maintain a continuous operation, we would enter Katrina-mode to conduct search and rescue missions,” Poore said. “Until we can get more reinforcements, we will run as many of those as we safely can. It will get to a point where we only have 26 pilots and need to look at if it is more detrimental to fly, depending on conditions in the area and how often we go out.”
“For survivors, your number one focus is preparation,” Poore said. “Prepare ahead of time with a go-kit and emergency kit. We live in an isolated area and can't promise major federal relief within even 72 hours. The drill today is to see how long we can do that, and if we can't to find out what else we can do.”
Jones said that until the Coast Guard is reestablished, and if there are even minimal resources available, that “if there are 5,000 people stranded in North Bend, they are on their own.”
Poore said the Coast Guard is encouraging community response teams to organize so people can help themselves.
“If the Coast Guard doesn't have helicopters,” Poore said, “which is likely, we become common citizens again.”
Jones was in high school in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, and said that people predicted that New Orleans would be flooded from a major hurricane by how the levy systems were set up, how marshland was depleted for so long, and when it happened “a lot of people died and a lot of people were unprepared.”
“Here we're working for this Cascadia Subduction Zone disaster,” he said. “If we are stranded, we must rely on ourselves until resources come. When Katrina hit, we had 24 hour notice. My family and I left the city. This earthquake and tsunami will be immediate and won't have a warning. Wherever you are, if you're shopping, walking your kids, riding your bike, wherever you are standing, it will happen right there.”
He urged people to have a meeting place in case families are separated when it happens, and to have resources available at home to survive at least a week.
“Help your neighbor,” Poore said. “The best way to survive this is together. The more we are able to be self-sufficient, the less catastrophic it will be and the better off we will be as a community.”