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Kenneth Murphy photographed in studio on April 13, 2016.

Image: Lou Daprile

In 2015, a New Yorker article by Kathryn Schulz—tapping the expertise of Kenneth Murphy, the regional director at FEMA—laid bare a scary reality about life in the Northwest: We live in an extremely active earthquake zone, one overdue for a seismological event that could set off a stories-high tsunami and as many as 30,000 landslides in Seattle alone. The article won a Pulitzer, while citizens in the region were left shaking in our proverbial boots. 

“I was just excited that all of a sudden people were interested,” says Murphy, who’s responsible for managing relief efforts should disaster strike. This June, he’s orchestrating a 6,000-person, four-day exercise—the largest emergency management drill in the history of the Pacific Northwest—to test how we’ll fare when the big one hits.

What do you hope to learn from this exercise?

It’s really a test of the nation’s capability. We’re going to work with our headquarters in Washington, DC, to look at the logistics of: How do you move literally tons of food and water and supplies out here while also keeping in mind all the aftershocks? Where do you put a couple million people who can’t live in their houses anymore? 

Where do you put a couple million people who can’t live in their houses? 

We would have tents brought in. We would bring mobile homes in. Let’s just say 10,000 homes were destroyed. It takes a long time to rebuild just 10,000 homes. When you talk about the devastation to an area this size, it’s going to be a long time until things are back to a new normal.

How ready is Seattle?

Seattle has a very good emergency management program. The area that I would focus on is how much has the actual citizen and the family done to prepare. 

What does prepared look like?

Have food and clothing ready so that you can survive on your own. Prescription drugs, cat food and dog food for pets—if you can take care of your family for a couple of weeks, you will have a much better chance of surviving. And you gotta have a communications plan. Ham radio might be one of the only forms of communication working. There are classes in the area; you can find resources on ready.gov. People don’t do well if they don’t know where their families are. 

And we can’t count on our cell phones working, right?

We brought the cell phone system down at the parade celebrating the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl. If the earthquake doesn’t cause the system to break, we’ll break it.

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