Washington is unprepared for major disruptions associated with an unpredictable, but not unexpected, earthquake or volcanic event, nor is it prepared for the disruptive weather events that will occur increasingly over time as weather patterns change and sea levels rise. A 9.0 magnitude quake has rocked coastal Washington before and will again someday. While no amount of preparation can ever be “enough,” recent assessments of our earthquake preparedness indicate shortfalls in meeting even the most basic lifeline services.
There is no doubt that a major earthquake is in Washington’s future; what’s uncertain is the timing. There’s little doubt, too, that Washington will experience increasingly erratic and severe weather events over the next few decades as the earth’s climate changes and weather patterns shift.
We work to manage those recurring disruptions caused by crashes and other incidents with an array of incident management tools, demand management measures, and system retrofits. While those measures enhance in some ways our capacity to respond to bigger events, system resiliency requires us to plan for transportation in different ways and with different partners.
Transportation is one of four lifeline sectors that Washington’s communities and businesses need in order to respond to, recover from, and successfully adapt to natural disasters of any type. The other three lifeline functions are communications, water and wastewater, and energy. Intergovernmental models of cooperation and coordination focused on these lifeline sectors will help people and businesses better withstand the near- and long-term effects of catastrophic events and reduce the time to recovery. Intergovernmental and cross-sector partnerships—such as those between the WSDOT and the Emergency Management Council, or amongst local governments situated along the Seismic Lifeline Corridor— are the cornerstone of transportation system resilience and the foundation of public health, safety, and welfare in times of crisis.
As we work day to day to increase system efficiency, reduce congestion, and improve mobility, it is easy to put off planning for the more uncertain, unthinkable things that can disrupt our best plans. Planning how to respond to increasing extreme weather events like floods and wildfires, how to adapt to changing sea levels, or how to respond to the devastation of a major earthquake, tsunami, or lahar flow helps us to be better prepared for these and other disasters. This increases our resilience.
Resilience is the ability of our communities and businesses to adapt and bounce back in the face of extreme adversity. Transportation is central to that ability.
Recommendation 6 in the August 2017 Resilient Washington Subcabinet Report is succinct: Strengthen regional transportation networks. The Subcabinet Report acknowledges the tremendous efforts to date to seismically retrofit the “Seismic Lifeline Route” from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Lakewood to Paine Field in Everett via Sea-Tac airport, and between I-5 and Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake. It also cautions that much work remains if this is to be completed within the next ten years.
This does not include nearly 600 additional bridges statewide that need retrofitting, or the additional planning and investments needed to extend lifeline route improvements into new branch corridors, or the coordination and operating agreements that will be needed if the state has to appropriate local roadways as a part of a sustained lifeline route. It does not address the coordination needed between transit agencies and paratransit service providers, social service agencies, first responders, and others to adequately respond to massive evacuations of vulnerable populations.
Transportation system resilience itself doesn’t address all of our emergency response and recovery needs but without it, most of those other response and recovery functions are nearly impossible.
Building resilience is about making people, communities, and systems better prepared to withstand catastrophic events —both natural and manmade—and able to bounce back more quickly and emerge stronger from these shocks and stresses. Rockefeller Foundation
Washington has the second-highest earthquake risk in the nation. While many people living here today can remember multiple earthquakes they “rode out,” the 700-mile Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) represents an extreme threat unlike any earthquake that has occurred here in over 300 years. Geologists estimate that when —not if— the CSZ breaks loose it is capable of generating a magnitude 9.0 or stronger quake and tsunami. Recent studies estimate 10,000 fatalities in Western Washington and Oregon and direct economic losses of over $80 billion with a price tag much higher. Many smaller fault zones are located throughout Washington.
The Resilient Washington Subcabinet has recommended short-term actions to help the state be better prepared for these inevitable natural disasters. This same attention to preparation and coordination will serve the state well in dealing with any number of other natural disasters. Work to date has identified high-priority actions that can be accomplished with existing resources; others, such as seismic retrofits for essential lifeline facilities, require a lot of money and time. Resilient Washington efforts underscore the critical role the transportation system plays in our ability to respond and recover from a major disaster.
Whether it is a single, cataclysmic disaster such as a CSZ earthquake or increasingly frequent and severe episodes of drought, wildfires, and flooding, prepared citizens, businesses, communities, and state are the best insurance of a strong response and a sustained recovery.