Kenmore residents looked to the sky the morning of April 27 to see seaplanes hauling supplies up from Renton in a coordinated effort among volunteer pilots preparing for the biggest natural disaster looming in the Pacific Northwest: “The Big One.”
The Cascadia Subduction Zone Fault threatens a potentially catastrophic earthquake with an 8.5 magnitude. Hundreds of volunteer pilots took to the sky last week in an effort to refine their response to such a disaster.
Organizations throughout the west coast, including Kenmore Air, Washington Seaplane Pilots Association and the Washington Pilots Association, have worked together to form the Disaster Airlift Response Team (DART). DART is a volunteer team of pilots, separate from government emergency response, that aims to assist relief efforts when infrastructure collapses.
“Shortly after Hurricane Katrina and the Nisqually earthquake [from 2001], I looked at what we faced,” said Sky Terry, northwest regional emergency services director for the Emergency Volunteer Air Corps [EVAC] and national disaster aviation director for No Town Left Behind. “I basically looked up and thought about all these guys who are flying around and don’t need runways, has anyone thought about them? And sure enough, no one had.”
Terry has been organizing these drills since 2009 and has developed this region’s pilot network into what it is today. The team has expanded to an average of three drills a year, establishing a better and better response to a potential disaster. The drills now extended down the West Coast in a joint effort with California pilots.
“That’s really amazing,” Terry said. “What we’re building out, as far as a resource, is lessons learned from prior drills. Now we’re getting to a standard of doing at least three to four drills a year and each one we pull from the previous one to make adjustments to the next one. The level of development and refinement that’s occurring with these exercises is phenomenally high so by the time we actually ever have to use this, it’s going to be really solid.”
As Terry and the volunteer pilots refine their response, the organization as a whole has been gaining traction among county government emergency response plans. DART as it exists in Washington is a concept merged between Terry’s EVAC and California’s DART concept — where Terry brought the medical emergency supply response and DART brought an emergency food supply response to a disaster.
“We’re still in development stage and that’s what these exercises are all about, but we’ll get there,” said Bill Herrington, a volunteer pilot based in Walla Walla.
The Washington volunteer pilots first began joint drills with California’s DART in 2015 and each year pilots transport actual emergency supplies along routes they would use in an emergency. Additionally, once the food or emergency supplies reaches its final destination, it’s donated to a food bank or charity organization.
“We have this annual huge multi-county interactive response effort that’s growing each year exponentially,” Terry said. “At the same time, the payload is going to go up exponentially to the food bank for the counties that develop the DART and they get this awesome boost in the off-season. It’s awesome to be able to prepare for the future and help the present at the same time in a live exercise.”
Terry added that as counties adopt a new DART in the network, that county will be the recipient of future drill supplies. This year, with Kenmore Air as the last stop, the supplies will be donated to Mary’s Place in Kenmore.
“Our state owes [Kenmore Air] a huge debt of gratitude,” Terry said. “This wouldn’t have gotten to this point without their help.”
Terry credits Kenmore Air, Washington Seaplane Pilots Association and the Washington Pilots Association as the first organizations who both understood his team’s vision and provided the equipment and location to run these drills.
“Assistance to the sick and injured during a major disaster is an important task,” Kenmore Air chief pilot Chuck Perry said. “As the largest seaplane operator in the United States, we feel an obligation to be part of this program. In the event of a loss of surface transportation, we may be able to help.”
The April 27 drill established better logistics as pilots work out supply chain routes. The emergency supply drop was flown across Washington from Walla Walla to Renton earlier in the week before pilots brought it to Kenmore.
Herrington heads the Walla Walla arm of the DART, which will serve as a primary supply feeder station in the event of a disaster. Walla Walla was chosen for its location in eastern Washington, which is less susceptible to an earthquake disaster than the west side of the Cascades.
“This is all about options,” Terry said. “We’re going to have to have this resource unless we want to watch people die who were savable.”