Getting Ready For The Big One In Seattle

High-pitched sirens rip through the serenity of a beautiful morning in Bellevue, Wash. At the first eerie wail, 350 Boeing Co. employees flee their two-story office buildings and swarm into parking lots. Volunteers in red baseball caps prod stragglers, herding them into groups on the asphalt. "Medics" in bright orange vests rescue "victims," with arms bound in colored bandages: red for bleeders, yellow for broken bones, black for the dead--those pretending to be dead, that is: Throughout the Puget Sound area, Boeing is holding drills to prepare for the next big earthquake.

"I never even thought about an earthquake here," says systems analyst Mark C. Monroe, one of the "injured." But Seattle-area officials, businesses, and wary insurance companies have. Puget Sound is earthquake country. Three tectonic plates--huge slabs of rock deep in the earth--shift and grind underneath the seemingly placid Pacific Northwest waters and mountains. Seattle lies near the intersection of the Juan de Fuca and the North American plates. And pushing up against both is the Pacific plate, mother of the San Andreas fault.

Puget Sound shakes caused eight deaths in 1949 and eight more in 1965. Now that 3.3 million people live here, the next quake could be far worse. "It's not a question of if but when," says LuAn Johnson, Seattle's neighborhood emergency coordinator.

Seattle-area businesses are determined to be prepared. Boeing holds annual drills for its 100,000-plus workforce. Airborne Express employees keep emergency packs of food, clothing, and medicine in their desks. In suburban Redmond, Eddie Bauer Inc. is preparing an emergency manual on how to contact loved ones during a quake.

One of the biggest drills of all, Sound Shake '98, is scheduled for fall, with more than 150 organizations and companies participating, including Microsoft Corp. It will simulate more than 600 calamities, such as bridges collapsing. "If we could only schedule the earthquake, too," sighs Patrick Quain, systems-management chief for Airborne Express. Airborne was one of the founders of an emergency-planning group formed by businesses in 1987. With its help, Seattle snagged a $1 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and raised an additional $6 million from local companies to retrofit schools and rewrite building codes to stricter California standards. Some money will help homeowners shore up foundations.

In March, the U.S. Geological Survey began taking ultrasound readings of the deep waters of Puget Sound and Lake Washington to find where various faults lie. Next year, scientists will set off dynamite charges from the Olympic Mountains to the Cascade foothills to find out how different soils amplify earthquake shocks.

That, however, doesn't soothe insurers, and commercial insurance for earthquakes is scarce. Most businesses, including Boeing and Microsoft, are self-insured. While most homeowners can still buy earthquake insurance, it's a costly add-on. After a quake hit during a 1996 Mariners' baseball game, several insurers threatened to discontinue earthquake coverage, though the quake caused minimal damage. Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn had to jawbone the insurers into continuing coverage.


There are other ways to stay prepared. Children duck and cover during drills in schools, and neighborhoods meet to discuss rescuing the injured. "It doesn't mean we won't have a nasty disaster in eight years, but at least we will have the mechanisms to deal with it," says Seattle Emergency Management Director James Mullen.

Back at the Boeing parking lot, the drill over, a volunteer says: "The first thing I learned was not to ask the injured to help you out." She'll remember that--and in the meantime hope that when the real thing happens, she'll be among the volunteers, not the wounded.

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