How can we prepare for a disaster like Oso?

March 26, 2014 

The recent fatal landslide in the small Snohomish town of Oso raises some difficult questions. What would we do in a similarly catastrophic event? Are we prepared as a community? Are there sufficient assets and qualified responders to rise to the occasion?

The landslide in Oso caught that entire community off-guard. It occurred on Saturday morning while people were getting ready for their weekend. Many were at their homes, enjoying a break from record-setting rainfall that apparently oversaturated the massive hillside.

One main highway, state Route 503, runs through the valley floor and connects Oso and Darrington, farther to the east, with the main Puget Sound urban areas.

We on the Gig Harbor and Key peninsulas are similarly connected to our larger urban neighbors by state Route 16, the Tacoma Narrows bridges and the Purdy bridge.

Although we are not located in the saddle of a large surrounding valley in the Cascade Mountains, we do have large-scale occupation of cliffside residences on slowly eroding hillside.

And communities that are near rivers that occasionally overrun their banks flood often see homes flood. When that happens, people can be in grave danger.

Yes, our views are spectacular. Yet we live on or near dynamic topography that shifts when it’s water logged. It’s a precarious, but mostly safe, price to pay.

What happens when we face a disaster? Aside from landslides or a bridge collapse, we also could see substantial damage from wind storms, snow and ice events, or a major earthquake or tsunami.

In Oso, emergency management teams have advised citizens who want to help to seek out and join an organized, collective effort. That’s because rescuing rescuers is never helpful.

Aid needs to be coordinated, planned and executed in a safe and effective way. People from surrounding communities, and even rescue volunteers from around our country and internationally, rush in to render assistance when their expertise is helpful. Other times, the disaster quickly turns from a search-and-rescue operation to one of an unfortunate recovery.

What can we do when the dreaded “what if” scenario plays out in our neighborhood? There are multiple fire and law enforcement departments full of competent and professional emergency personnel. We also have our own hospital capable of handling and treating all but the most critically injured victims who will come from a disaster.

But with all major disasters, the most time-critical work that needs to be done is immediately after the disaster strikes. Emergency responders rush in to save those in immediate danger.

As we’re seeing in Oso, the time-consuming work comes after the initial response: Digging out victims, preserving and collecting forensic evidence, along with the actual cleanup and restoration of the disaster site. It all requires an enormous amount of time, resources and volunteers.

Locally, several organizations are in place, along with regularly scheduled training that involves emergency command centers. There is a pool of leaders from multiple response and aid groups who come together for coordinated planning and execution of those assets.

You can also take steps to prepare your home and family for disaster. The Peninsula’s Emergency Preparedness Coalition, or PEP-C, has a list of helpful resources available at pep-c.org.

Some of them include:

 • Having a family disaster plan.

 • Having response and evacuation plans.

 • Creating emergency kits for your home or your car.

 • Securing your water heater and other utilities, as well as your furnishings.

 • Having a 72-hour survival kit.

 • Knowing First-Aid techniques.

 • Making routine safety checks.

 • Practicing your disaster plan.

If you have a plan, it can reduce fear in the moment and increase your chance of survival.

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