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Expert asks: are we resilient enough to recover from a regional disaster?

Is the Puget Sound region – home to more than 4.5 million people – adequately prepared for a disaster?

That's a tough one to answer comprehensively, many emergency preparedness experts admit.

While the “big one” may be tricky to predict, experts know for certain that the region is prone to natural disasters.

And that for the Seattle area, fractured as it is with fault lines, earthquakes top the list.

Overlooking the valley, mighty Mount Rainier has been dormant since its last eruption around 1100 AD. But its activity – combined with its proximity to Seattle and Tacoma – makes any eruption there one of the most dangerous in the world, according to the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior’s Decade Volcano list.

Such potential events concern Dr. Stephen Flynn of Northeastern University, a professor and one of the world’s experts on disaster resilience. Dealing with disaster is sort of his business, a source of his intense study.

Dr. Stephen Flynn is Professor of Political Science, founding Director of the Center for Resilience Studies, and Co-Director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.  He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Wharton School Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania.  He received the M.A.L.D. and Ph.D. degrees from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, in 1990 and 1991.

Dr. Flynn is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on enterprise resilience, critical infrastructure assurance, and transportation and supply chain security and resilience.

Flynn recently visited Seattle to talk with local leaders about the region's readiness for a catastrophic event. Flynn, now leading a major study in the aftermath of SuperStorm Sandy that will be presented to Congress and the Obama administration, is soliciting responses to his study from leaders throughout the country.

Upon his review, Flynn says, Puget Sound area leaders are paying attention to the warning signs, but concludes the region and notably its residents are no more fully prepared to deal with a disaster than are other parts of the country. Outside of emergency management professionals, too few of us spend any time considering how prepared our communities are, Flynn noted.

"Your emergency management community is about as on top of it as anywhere in our country in terms of understanding the kinds of risk and working to prepare for those risk," Flynn said. "(But) your area, like much of the country, is not where it needs to be.

"Increasingly, as citizens, we expect the professionals to take care of this. … When something goes wrong, we pay for emergency managers … fire and police … they're supposed to fix this stuff," Flynn said.

"The reality is … it certainly came through from the Katrina and Sandy experiences … that the first-responders are almost always your family, your neighbor or the stranger near you. There's not enough professionals around," Flynn said.

Flynn said he believes the lessons learned from SuperStorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina can help our region better prepare for such an event.

But it remains a challenge.

While cities, such as Kent and Auburn, are equipped to mobilize in the event of a more isolated flood or mudslide, the region as a whole needs to better prepare for a widespread disaster.

Flynn hopes the country, region by region, broadens its commitment to become better prepared for these events, both in terms of negating the risks and recovering quickly from a crisis.

It's not a matter of "if" disaster strikes but when, Flynn says.

"It will happen. We will have a major disaster in the Puget Sound area. It is almost certainly going to be a major earthquake," he said. "I state that out front because to the larger extent … every part of our country has gone through a disaster.

"We wait until they happen, and we cope well when they happen. … But what we know is they are less frequent than we often presume them to be, and there's a lot more we know about them now and what we can do about them in terms of reducing their impact."

Regions need to better prepared for a disaster, considering the geographical dependency on infrastructure, the power grid, water, communication and extended transportation, Flynn cautioned.

The Seattle region is a global leader in technology and advanced manufacturing, as well as a major military hub that depends on the reliable operation of critical infrastructures in the energy, transportation, communications and IT sectors. A major disaster has the potential to endanger millions of lives and cause major disruptions to our communities and businesses, as well as undermine the capacity for the U.S. military to carry out its national security mission, Flynn noted.

"(For instance) Seattle and Tacoma are the umbilical cord to Alaska in terms of all its logistical needs," he said. "If you get knocked down, then Alaska will feel it."

But, in the aftermath of a disaster, we somehow recover.

"I can always find things that I wished we had done up front to basically reduce the mayhem that was caused. But I often always marvel at our capacity to work our way through these things and get back on our feet," Flynn said. "My message is we just try to do both. We should spend equal measure and efforts to anticipate and prepare and reduce the cost of these events as well as pat ourselves on the back about how quickly we bounce back."

Beyond the professional community, residents need to take more personal responsibility in emergency preparedness. Not everyone is risk literate, Flynn acknowledges, but it's a civic duty for those who are physically able to become trained, ready and willing to help their neighbors in times of trouble.

“They will almost certainly happen,” Flynn said of disasters, man-made or natural. "We just hope they don't happen tomorrow."

Mark Klaas is the editor of the Auburn Reporter, a Sound Publishing newspaper and a sister publication to the Kirkland Reporter.

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