Features

Shake, rattle & toll

"Shake, rattle & toll" Continued...

Issue: "Nuke nightmare," Feb. 25, 2006

FEMA warns that the top cause of death in major earthquakes is falling interior furnishings. The average house could secure all such dangers for less than $100. "It's the most inexpensive insurance you can get," Mr. Reese said. "You can't buy insurance after you're dead."

Final tallies of Nisqually's damage indicated that most people had not insured their buildings' exteriors, either. The Seattle Chocolates manufacturing plant was among 29 buildings within the city red-tagged and rendered illegal to enter. Uninsured and ideologically averse to accepting government assistance, owners Rick and Jean Thompson coughed up a $700,000 personal investment to relocate their entire operation in a matter of weeks. Already in financial turmoil, the move placed the business on the brink of extermination.

Today, the company's profits could hardly be sweeter as it struggles to keep pace with demand. Through its past difficulties, Seattle Chocolates learned innumerable lessons, becoming a model for business accountability. Sensitive records are now copied and stored out of state. Workers are drilled randomly on emergency procedures. Interior equipment is locked down. And, perhaps most important, the building is insured. "It's unfortunate, but I guess it's our nature, that it takes something happening for us to remember, 'Oh yeah, I guess we should be prepared,'" said communications manager Ellen Gengler. "We believe we should do as much as we possibly can-do all those things we can control-instead of just waiting and hoping for [FEMA]."

Seattle business owners, much more than residents, have begun emulating such a posture of responsibility. "Many businesses and building landlords in the area have fortified their structures to make them more earthquake-resilient," said Niel Campbell, Seattle Chocolates' vice president of operations. "Insurance coverage is still a prohibitive proposition for most small business owners. What one has to consider beyond the insurance coverage is whether or not they can sustain the litigating details of insurance claims adjustments."

That proprietors are even working through such issues is evidence of progress. Meanwhile, residential districts seem only to regress in preparedness. For years, Seattle had developed a block-by-block program in which neighborhoods stored emergency supplies and developed specific disaster plans. Since Nisqually, the city has elected to significantly scale back the program. Few communities harbor enough resolve to sustain such efforts without government prompting.

But the region is not without its own resources. Emergency management officials have trained roughly 8,000 relief volunteers for varying tasks, and more than 100 amateur radio personnel are ready to disseminate critical information throughout the state.

Local agencies responded well to the Nisqually tremor and learned valuable lessons to employ in future catastrophes. "By the time I got to the office within 30 minutes, the mayor was there, our stations were manned, and we went about our checklist of checking bridges, checking critical facilities, and getting word out of what was going on," Mr. Mullen recalled of his Seattle emergency management department. "Our plan worked pretty well."

Mr. Mullen is confident city and state authorities would succeed again if faced with a calamity of greater magnitude. He told WORLD that FEMA's track record should disqualify federal officials from primary relief responsibilities: "If this ever happens again, we'll meet them on the tarmac in a hangar at Boeing Field and say, 'You can either get back on the plane to go back where you came from or you can follow these ground rules. In our state, the locals are in charge.'"

That's a message disaster victims nationwide should hear, too.

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