The Northwest's Best Hope In An Earthquake: Parachutes And MASH Tents

Jun 10, 2016

Parachutes and MASH tents might be the Northwest’s best hope in the face of a 9.0 earthquake and coastal tsunami. This week emergency responders in Washington, Oregon and Idaho are practicing for a subduction zone quake.

We climb aboard Black Hawk helicopters at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and take off for the Shelton airport. It’s about a 20 minute ride over Puget Sound. Shelton is viewed as a strategic location in the event of a tsunami on the Washington coast. It might be the closest intact airfield.

“So Shelton is a very critical place for us," said Clay Braun, a Lt. Colonel in the Washington National Guard. “It’s a jumping off point from which we can effect response in the coastal areas.”

On the ground at Shelton, a temporary Army base has been set up at the fairgrounds adjacent to the airport. Each day of this disaster exercise, the soldiers here are put through different scenarios. Lt. Col. Adam Iwaszuk is in charge of this pop up base.

“About an hour ago, we were given a simulation of an aftershock of a 5.0,” said Iwaszuk.

He says the task now is to assess nearby roads and the airstrip for any additional damage. Nearby a real life version of MASH. A field hospital has been set up in a cluster of brown Army tents. Captain Ben Ekstrom is a doctor. He says working in a tent hospital takes some getting used to.

“The wind blows the tent around, your stuff gets moved, it gets really hot in here.”

The soldiers here have been practicing all week as part of a regional drill called Cascadia Rising. It’s been billed as the largest earthquake simulation in Northwest history. The scenario is terrifying—a deep, powerful earthquake off the coast that triggers 4 to 10 minutes of violent shaking. That’s followed by a devastating coastal tsunami. Lt. Col. Braun says these major quakes have historically struck every few hundred years.

“So we don’t know when for sure it’s going to rupture, we just know it could happen right now, it could happen 500 years from now, our best course of action is to prepare for it and be as prepared as possible for this rupture so when it happens, we can respond appropriately.”

The assumption is a 9.0 earthquake would kill more than 8-thousand people and injure 12-thousand. An overwhelming eighty-thousand medically fragile people would need to be evacuated. There might be dangerous chemical leaks. And oh by the way, roads and bridges would be wiped out. That’s why dropping supplies and soldiers into strategic locations by parachute is something else the National Guard is training for.

Reporter Austin Jenkins witnessed preparations. This is what he saw:

“Okay, that was a Chinook helicopter, a twin rotor helicopter that just flew over the Shelton airfield and it’s now dumping cargo out of the back of that helicopter and as the cargo drops parachutes open up and now the cargo is slowly floating to the ground. ... So you’re hearing another Chinook helicopter flying over once again the Shelton airfield. And paratroopers are about to jump out of this helicopter. Here they come: one, two, three, four, five, six. Six of them now with their parachutes now deployed and they’re going to float down to this airfield and their job is to collect the supplies that were dropped a while ago.”

“We’re about to set up some communications stuff over here, " said Chief Warrant Officer James Pierce, one of the paratroopers--in a real disaster he’d be jumping out of a plane. “It’s the fastest way for us to get gear to the ground.”

Despite all of this effort to practice and be ready for the big one, disaster planners have a big message to the public: be prepared to survive for at least three to seven days without help. The reality is, a soldier probably isn’t going to drop into your neighborhood by parachute and hand you a meal, a bottle of water and a blanket.

Copyright 2016 Northwest News Network