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Mock quake prepares responders for emergency

F.T. NORTON
Appeal staff writer
BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal
ALL |

VIRGINIA CITY ” This mountain town, known for its rich mining history and year-round festivities, played host Saturday to a different sort of gathering as emergency personnel from Northern Nevada and other western states responded a

mock 7.6 magnitude earthquake.

Vigilant Guard ’08 is a full-scale, $1.5 million emergency preparedness drill funded by the federal government. Its goal is to test the expertise and coordination of local, state and federal agencies and the National Guard. Approximately 1,750 National

Guardsmen from seven states are dealing with the aftermath of a devastating, albeit mock, earthquake.

The earthquake scenario initiated one of the largest disaster drills in Nevada. Local, state and federal agencies from the Silver State, California and Arizona as well as officials from Storey County, Carson City, Washoe, Douglas, Storey, Lyon and Churchill counties.

In Virginia City’s case, a 7.6-magnitude aftershock struck early Saturday, collapsing several historic main street buildings, blocking access in and out of the community and causing mass casualties, said Eileen Herrington, public information officer.

When the world doesn’t seem to be ending, Herrington is the criminal case worker for the Storey County District Attorney’s Office.

“The more you exercise and play at it, the more you’re able to handle it if it really happens,” she said. “Practice makes perfect. When it actually does happen, I won’t be clueless.”

The scenario isn’t that far off. Nevada is the third-most seismologically active state, after California and Alaska. In 1915, a 7.1 quake rocked Pleasant Valley, 40 miles southeast of Winnemucca. In 1932, a 7.2 quake struck Cedar Mountain. In February, a magnitude 6.0 quake struck six miles east of Wells, injuring at least three people and damaging 700 buildings. Hundreds of aftershocks were felt in the ensuing weeks.

Joe Curtis, Storey County emergency management director and volunteer fire chief, said Saturday’s exercise was two years in the making.

“That’s when we started the initial planning for this national exercise scene that travels around the nation,” he said.

Curtis determined that Storey County would have two incidents ” a hazardous material spill at the Wal-Mart distribution center in the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center

in Lockwood, and mass casualty evacuations at Virginia City High School.

“We are the ones that seem to have bitten off the biggest chunk,” he said.

In the scenario, rock slides blocked all of the roads into the community, and Storey County could not rely on surrounding communities for help. But as it stood, Carson City and Lyon County were dealing with their own issues in the same drill.

Lyon County evacuated Silver City for the drill, and Carson City firefighters set up a 100-bed triage hospital at Carson Tahoe Regional Medical Center.

With no help coming from around them, Curtis said, they called in support from the National Guard.

Guardsmen arrived from Arizona and Las Vegas to take part in the exercise.

Chinook helicopters landed on the high school football field to evacuate the injured actors.

A real casualty occurred during that exercise, when a powerful blast of air from the helicopter’s rotors sent a set of bleachers tumbling down the hillside.

After the drill, evaluators will present Storey County with their findings.

“This gave us an opportunity to see where we were short,” said Fire Captain Rob Dufresne.

“This is an exercise of manpower and equipment and to identify anything that needs to be fixed,” he said. “It’s not going to be perfect. This was to exercise and test and to prepare. This is to know we are prepared for the big one.”

Contact reporter F.T. Norton at 881-1213 or ftnorton@nevadaappeal.com