ASTORIA — When the men and women of U.S. Coast Guard Sector Columbia River came to work Monday morning, they were told they had 20 minutes to reach Fort Clatsop.
In a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, 20 minutes is about all the time residents would get to find higher ground.
For the evacuation drill, about 100 members left their posts near the Astoria Regional Airport and ran 1.4 miles to the fort in Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, where the Coast Guard would set up an incident command center in an actual emergency.
Anthony Kenne, chief of planning and force readiness with the Coast Guard, said the guard was searching for a location that was relatively close, was out of the tsunami zone and had existing infrastructure.
The evacuation drill was staged the day before the 316th anniversary of what scientists believe was the last large Cascadia earthquake and tsunami on Jan. 26, 1700.
The Coast Guard sector sits at just 11 feet above sea level. In a Cascadia event, the sector could drop to 1 foot above sea level. It could be underwater within 20 minutes.
“We were looking for a good evacuation site. Something that was high ground, close proximity to the sector,” Kenne said.
Red stickers were placed on those who did not make it to Fort Clatsop on time, which was almost half of the group. Kenne warned the group that if they are unable to reach the fort, they must turn off the route and head toward other high ground on nearby farmland. From there, it could take a day before reaching the fort.
“Head to those first if you know it’s going to take longer than 20 minutes,” Kenne told the group.
Kenne asked what the members consider high ground. One Guardsman joked, “Anything higher than what I was walking on.”
As part of the agreement with the national park, the Coast Guard is stashing an emergency kit at the park full of tents, sleeping bags, tarps, a hatchet, shovels and axes. The kit also includes a water filter, fire starter and other essentials.
Before evacuating, members would take a satellite phone with a connection to the district office in Seattle and hand-held radios.
“Our focus is food, water, shelter,” Kenne said. “We are not really going anywhere for a few days. We are trying to make sure our people are safe.”
Scott Tucker, Lewis and Clark National Historical Park superintendent, said he was approached by the Coast Guard about a year ago about using the park in a Cascadia event.
It’s a natural partnership, Tucker said, especially because both are federal agencies.
A couple of years ago, the Coast Guard tried an evacuation drill at Camp Rilea Armed Forces Training Center in Warrenton, but realized the center was too far away.
The short distance to the national park avoids hurdles such as damaged bridges.
Tucker points out the replica Fort Clatsop has 30 beds, if needed.
“Lewis and Clark had it right. They chose this location because of its height over high tide,” Tucker said. “Two-hundred years later, the ground is higher than the proposed tsunami zone.”
The national park and Coast Guard are in the process of establishing a written agreement to formally have an evacuation plan in place. Along with storing goods at the park, Tucker said, the Coast Guard would be welcome to use the park’s equipment in its maintenance shops.
“If our role in this is making sure the Coast Guard can do their job, I can sleep well at night knowing we are doing our piece for the community,” Tucker said.
In any emergency situation, Kenne said, the most critical thing is saving people.
Equipment comes second. If a helicopter is in the hangar, it’s not going to get out in time. And if the power is out, the hangar doors would not even open anyway.
“Our focus is people first, if we can save them,” Kenne said.
Along with becoming an emergency headquarters for the Coast Guard, the national park is also an official community assembly area for residents in the immediate area.
Kenne reminded the group Monday that their time at the park may be spent assisting their fellow community members.
“We may have to build shelter, not just for us, but there may be other folks,” Kenne said. “We may be helping out folks like we always do.”