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Sunday, September 18, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Is Seattle really ready?

Seattle Times staff reporter

Information


Project Impact. Seismic-mitigation assistance: www.cityofseattle.net/projectimpact or 206-615-0288

Seattle Disaster Aid and Response Teams. Neighborhood preparation and response: www.cityof

seattle.net/emergency_mgt/Who

WeAre/preparednessSDART.htm

or 206-233-7123

Next month, state transportation specialists will temporarily close the Alaskan Way Viaduct to check for cracks. Seattle police and firefighters plan to take advantage of the opportunity by testing their response to a mock emergency — a pretend truck bomb that pancakes the structure.

There is a reason the exercise includes a fake explosion and not an earthquake: The federal government will pay the overtime of cops and emergency medical workers if the drill involves an act of terrorism, but it won't if locals rehearse for a natural disaster.

"I would love flexibility" when devising training scenarios, said Barb Graff, Seattle's director of emergency operations. "I don't have flexibility."

And that, say state and local disaster officials, exemplifies everything wrong with how we're preparing for catastrophe.

Even though the city has determined that earthquakes — not terrorism — represent the greatest threat, the federal government has given Seattle roughly seven times as much money over the past five years for homeland security as it has given for seismic retrofitting since 1990.

The federal focus on man-made attacks helps explain why there is a waterfront warning siren that can detect radiological dust, but a plan to stash four trailers full of cots, radios and water for thousands of displaced residents around the city has yet to be implemented.

There are other weaknesses in the system.

A citywide program, Seattle Disaster Aid and Response Teams (SDART), trains residents to organize and implement their own rudimentary recovery effort. It's considered a centerpiece of the city's disaster plan, since first responders may not reach victims for several days and people will be told to stay put.

The Ravenna, Wedgwood and View Ridge neighborhoods in North Seattle boast 65 disaster teams, data provided by the city show. But Beacon Hill has just two teams, even though planners acknowledge the area has the greatest population of elderly, poor, institutionalized and immigrant people.

During a recent interview, Mayor Greg Nickels conceded that more should be done to organize less-affluent parts of the city, but he would not commit to adding personnel to SDART's two-person payroll.

While Nickels said he differs with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's budget priorities, he and federal officials agree on one thing: Devising and executing disaster recovery is the mayor's job, and residents shouldn't look to agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for leadership.

Indeed, FEMA's regional headquarters in Bothell covers Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. And while FEMA has some supply stockpiles locally, its nearest logistics center is at an airfield 800 miles away, near Santa Clara, Calif.

Changing landscape

Federal disaster assistance was evolving even before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks four years ago.

Consider Project Impact, the FEMA program that dispensed grants to cities for seismic retrofitting.

Seattle got $1 million from Project Impact and focused on retrofitting city schools. Local officials credited the program with saving lives during the 6.8-magnitude Nisqually quake Feb. 28, 2001, which injured 410 people and caused more than $2 billion in damage.

But on the same day as the quake, the White House killed Project Impact.

Asked about the coincidence on CNN that night, Vice President Dick Cheney said: "Lots of programs that make lots of sense or that have nice titles to them nonetheless don't work."

The city of Seattle has continued Project Impact on its own.

After Sept. 11, FEMA lost its independence and was placed under the new Homeland Security Department, whose primary mission was to prevent terrorist attacks.

One of the biggest changes concerned how money is disbursed.

In 2001, the state got $2.2 million in Emergency Management Performance Grants, which support local disaster-response efforts. This year, it received $3.4 million.

But unlike previous years, the grant is no longer under FEMA's purview. Instead of FEMA managers in Bothell following the money, it's now overseen by the Office for Domestic Preparedness in Washington, D.C.

And that eroded one of the big advantages for Seattle responders — the personal contacts they had with FEMA officials who worked nearby.

"It has made an impact on us," said FEMA Regional Director John Pennington. "We have to work harder to maintain those relationships, and we do."

In July, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced he intended to create a separate directorate of preparedness and limit FEMA to response and recovery.

To many local emergency officials, that amounted to a final gutting of FEMA.

In a widely disseminated opinion piece last month, Eric Holdeman, director of the King County Office of Emergency Management, characterized the proposal as "a death blow to an agency already on life-support."

Pennington, the regional FEMA director, said that was an exaggeration but added: "There could be some changes [to Chertoff's plan] based on what we've seen during Hurricane Katrina."

Who's in charge

There is an established protocol for cities to follow during a disaster.

After declaring a "civil emergency," the mayor can ask for state help after exhausting the city's resources. The state, in turn, can ask the federal government if it can't cope, either.

The president can make a "major disaster declaration" if substantial financial or technical support is needed.

In the worst case, the Defense Department will be asked to send relief.

In that respect, Seattle is lucky. One of the nation's largest army bases, Fort Lewis, south of Tacoma, could supply housing, food and, most important, helicopters.

"I feel good having them there. It's a tremendous potential asset," said Jim Mullen, director of the state Emergency Management Division.

FEMA's role is to buttress local efforts and then cut relief checks to governments and private citizens for housing, repairs and low-interest loans.

But the city should maintain control over the response, Pennington said. "It's going to be the incident commander for Seattle and King County who is running the show."

Creative spending

Seattle has received about $40 million in Homeland Security grants since the Sept. 11 attacks, including $11 million it received as one of the seven U.S. cities deemed most vulnerable to terrorism.

But the city's own threat assessment put the risk of earthquakes at roughly double that of a terrorist strike.

That meant Seattle had to be creative with its federal dollars.

"If there were no restrictions, clearly, we'd target this money differently," Nickels said. "We think earthquake is the number-one threat we have. But we recognize there are many things you could do whether it's a man-made catastrophe or a natural catastrophe."

Using $250,000 from the Homeland Security Department, Seattle Public Utilities developed a system to deliver 612,000 gallons of drinking water across the city daily if its water supply was contaminated or disrupted.

The Fire Department purchased a $1.8 million fire and rescue boat using federal security money.

Those and other major purchases could be used for incidents other than terrorism.

But there is plenty left to do, and Nickels has his critics, some of whom formerly worked in the city's emergency-management department.

In the event of a massive earthquake, roads would likely become impassable, and people would be stuck. Those who need assistance would be told to gather at six community centers to be equipped with diesel generators.

So far, only two have them: Queen Anne and Rainier Beach. The others are expected to arrive in coming weeks.

Trailers full of emergency supplies, however, are to be located elsewhere — at four city maintenance yards and depots. They were too large to be stored at the community centers, city officials said.

Officials hope the supplies, funded by the city's $167 million fire-station levy approved in 2003, will arrive next year.

Asked whether he was nervous that citizens would be empty-handed if a disaster struck tomorrow, Nickels replied: "We have no control over that. I think Seattle is taking extraordinary measures to make sure we are prepared, and we're doing it on a fast track."

Given that it may take a week to mount a citywide rescue effort, planners emphasize the need for residents to be self-sufficient for seven days, maybe longer.

To help residents help themselves, the city's SDART program aims to organize teams of about 25 to 30 households to care for neighbors in need.

City data show SDART neighborhoods split along race and income.

Affluent areas such as Ravenna and Magnolia have a total of 119 rescue teams. The Central Area and Beacon Hill, on the other hand, have nine.

Poorer neighborhoods were not neglected by the city, said LuAn Johnson, who managed SDART from 1993 to a few weeks ago when she resigned for medical reasons. She said people who work two jobs are much less likely to get involved in disaster preparations. And it was all she could do to keep up with requests from interested neighborhoods.

Evangelizing SDART across the city took manpower Johnson didn't have.

When she held a similar job in Sunnyvale, Calif., (population 160,000), Johnson had three full-time employees. In Seattle, she had an office assistant and a group of volunteers.

Seattle has yet to fill Johnson's vacant position.

For years, the city emergency department sought more staff and resources, said Steve Brown, who retired last year as the city's recovery and mitigation coordinator.

For years, the requests were denied, leading Brown to scoff at Nickels' oft-repeated pledge "to make Seattle the most prepared city in America."

"We were getting squashed. That's why I retired," Brown said. "The city needs a strong emergency-management program. We have an enormous earthquake risk here and we're not equipped to manage it."

Nickels flatly denied that budget considerations play a part in how the city organizes its emergency response.

"We need to have people trained to do this and we will. It's not a resource issue at all," Nickels said. Additional city employees may be asked to spread SDART's message in their own neighborhoods.

"What we saw in New Orleans was neighborhoods that were less affluent, with less resources and less organized, got left behind. We've got to make sure that doesn't happen in Seattle," he said.

Tomorrow, the City Council will hold a briefing on Seattle's emergency-management program. Gov. Christine Gregoire has called for hearings in October on the state's response. And Congress will certainly investigate Hurricane Katrina, to learn what went wrong.

Nickels said he will pay particular attention to the command structure in New Orleans, to discover how the calamity seemed to overwhelm City Hall so quickly.

In the event of a massive catastrophe in his city, Nickels vowed that he would stay in charge and be accountable: "Even though you can't save everybody, you got to try."

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or afryer@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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