Wash. Flood Disaster Exercise Tests Local Response

Wash. Flood Disaster Exercise Tests Local Response

News Dec 02, 2012

Kittitas County emergency management personnel took part in a training exercise Thursday that required them to respond to the worst flooding in the county’s history.

The 72 participants grappled with trying to save lives and safeguard public and private property and infrastructure during a horrendous flood, one that in any given year has a 1 percent chance of occurring.

The simulated scenario’s flood was caused by a thick, heavy snowpack in the higher elevations in late February turning into raging runoff waters as temperatures rose and mountains and foothills were continuously pounded with drenching rains.

The tabletop disaster management exercise took place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday in the Manastash Room at the county fairgrounds.

The personnel were from nearly every local, state and federal government agency and jurisdiction within the county, including emergency fire, rescue and medical personnel and law enforcement officers, public schools, hospitals and clinics, cities, county government offices and the Yakama Nation.

They were preparing for how to work together in responding to flooding the magnitude of which has never been seen locally.

Those organizing the management exercise — Kittitas County Public Works, Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue and the county Sheriff’s Office — built into the disaster scenario two to three days of major flooding, instead of the usual 24-hour inundation that has occurred locally.

They also threw in a few other emergencies.

“We’ve just been told our evacuation shelters in Cle Elum and Ellensburg are being overwhelmed with evacuees from flooded homes,” said Regional Red Cross Emergency Services Director Martha Read during the exercise’s morning session. “Right now, we’ve got to get more space (for shelters).”

Read, who covers all of Eastern Washington for the Red Cross, sat at a table that was the simulated county Emergency Operations Center. She said the next step was to contact Ellensburg area churches as soon as possible to open doors and put up more people, and use Walter Strom Middle School in Upper Kittitas County.

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If need be, Kittitas school buildings could be used, she said, and the overflow could be sent to Yakima shelters.

Resources tested

Mobile kitchen and dining services from a Southern Baptist Convention relief team were called in from Tri-Cities to feed evacuees, and a second team from Wenatchee was on standby to head to Kittitas County.

Upper County volunteer fire and rescue personnel said they were getting eight to 10 calls an hour with pleas for help, including water threatening living spaces, a bridge collapse in the Elk Meadows development west of Cle Elum and someone who needed help while they were giving CPR.

Erosion exposed a large natural gas line along the Yakima River and the line’s failure was likely.

The Sheriff’s Office received a report that two teenagers were swept into the river near Ringer Loop Road off Canyon Road.

Power outages were reported at various locations, and two volunteer firefighters were injured when power lines were in the water at a partial structural collapse. They needed to be transported to Seattle for treatment.

As flooded roads and washed out highways were closed or became impassable by emergency vehicles, disaster managers struggled to figure out how to reach stranded or injured residents and get to locations where crews needed to shore up infrastructure or reconnect power.

Control the response

County Commissioner-elect Gary Berndt, sitting at the simulated emergency center, said the daylong exercise exposed management personnel to the real potential for a longer-term disaster in Kittitas County.

Other tables around the crowded fairgrounds’ room were designated for various agencies trying to respond to the emergency.

Berndt, who is retired from 40 years of managing and suppressing wildfires with the state Department of Natural Resources, said he’s been part of similar exercises in his career.

“We can’t control this kind of disaster, but we can control our response to it,” Berndt said. “Flood waters will do what flood waters do, but we can train cooperatively ahead of time to get the best possible emergency response when it’s needed.”

County Commissioner Paul Jewell said in his past four years as a commissioner the county has dealt with four floods and two major wildfires. What’s learned during exercises can be applied to any emergency, Jewell said, and it brings agency personnel together to better know each other’s jurisdictional role, capabilities and personalities.

“We need to consider the intensity of a disaster that we’ve never considered before,” Jewell said.

Daunting scenario

Read said in her 10 years of work as a Red Cross emergency director in Eastern Washington she’s involved in about two or three drills like this a year.

She said the duration and severity of the flooding scenarios in Thursday’s drill were daunting compared to the immediately available resources.

“It’s so crucial to really get to know all the people behind all the agencies involved in emergency management around your community,” Read said during a break. “The better relationship and understanding you have, the better your communication will be and our response.”

KVFR Deputy Chief Rich Elliott said county floods every year or two usually peak within 24 hours and then slowly abate. The Thursday drill had the goal of stretching the period of flooding to two or three days or more, and challenged managers to handle emergencies with quickly dwindling resources.

“What we’re also trying to do is have more depth in our respective agencies when it comes to disaster response,” Elliott said.

He explained that more personnel in all agencies need to have management experience in handling a longer-running emergency to back up those who already have experience.

Coming together

Elliott said the countywide tabletop drill, to his knowledge, was only the second time that all agencies in the county that deal with disasters have trained together. About 1 and 1/2 years ago the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation sponsored a countywide tabletop exercise simulating one of its dams breaching in the Upper County.

Kittitas County Undersheriff Clay Myers said the Sheriff’s Office is the emergency management umbrella organization countywide, and it has an obligation to train with and support the work of all other agencies and personnel with emergency response capabilities.

What’s learned from the Thursday drill can be applied to any disaster: wildfires, landslides, severe weather and others, he said.

The two wildfires earlier this year brought out areas where practice in better coordination were needed, he said.

“What’s the worst that can happen? We need to train for that, and that’s what we’re doing,” Myers said.

Getting worse

As the exercise wore on, the countywide flooding got worse: a massive log jam was threatening to damage the South Cle Elum Way bridge, water was backing up there and flooding South Cle Elum and Cle Elum.

Emergency service personnel eventually reached the point of continuous work beyond 36 hours.

Upper County fire and emergency management units exhausted all available resources and were beginning to prioritize response to calls for help, first taking on calls involving immediate danger to life.

A structure fire was reported at a South Cle Elum duplex with two injured people.

The two teenagers swept into the river from Ringer Loop Road were located: one was recovered from the river and the second was trapped on a log jam. Emergency medical personnel were called to the scene with a rope-rescue crew.

Then, when it seemed it couldn’t get any worse, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported it was starting to release flood waters from its Upper County reservoirs before dams were breached. River levels, already flooding at record highs, would go even higher.

Emergency managers were told the extra water would reach Cle Elum in 30 minutes and hit Ellensburg in two hours.

All part of a day’s tabletop training.

Copyright 2012 Daily Record (Ellensburg, WA)Distributed by Newsbank, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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Daily Record (Ellensburg, Washington)
MIKE JOHNSTON
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