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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

After A 9.0 Earthquake And Tsunami, Rescue Means Parachutes And MASH Tents

Emergency responders in Washington, Oregon and Idaho this week are practicing for a subduction zone earthquake. It’s part of a regional drill called Cascadia Rising -- 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. Colonel Clay Braun of the Washington National Guard said 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,” Braun said. “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.”

‘A very critical place’

The Shelton airport is about a 20 minute ride on a Black Hawk helicopter from Joint Base Lewis-McChord 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.

“Shelton is a very critical place for us,” Braun said. “It’s a jumping off point from which we can effect response in the coastal areas.”

The assumption is a 9.0 earthquake would kill more than 8,000 people and injure 12,000. An overwhelming 80,000 medically fragile people would need to be evacuated. There might be dangerous chemical leaks.

And 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.

In this particular drill, a twin-rotor Chinook helicopter flew over the Shelton airfield and dropped cargo out of the back. Parachutes opened up and now the cargo slowly floated to the ground. The cargo was soon followed by six paratroopers jumping out of a second Chinook. Their job was to collect the supplies.

Chief Warrant Officer James Pierce was 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,” he said.

Be prepared to survive

On the ground at Shelton, a temporary Army base has been set up at the fairgrounds adjacent to the airport. Nearby, a field hospital has been set up in a cluster of brown Army tents. It’s a real-life version of MASH.

Captain Ben Ekstrom, a doctor, said working in a tent hospital takes some getting used to.

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

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,” Iwaszuk said.

He said the task now is to assess nearby roads and the airstrip for any additional damage.

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.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."