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Mercer Island hustles to secure volunteer crisis team

The new emergency well can be seen in the background of Rotary Park. The well, built to provide Islanders with potable water in a disaster, will be ready for operation this April.  - Elizabeth Celms/Mercer Island Reporter
The new emergency well can be seen in the background of Rotary Park. The well, built to provide Islanders with potable water in a disaster, will be ready for operation this April.
— image credit: Elizabeth Celms/Mercer Island Reporter

With the Haiti earthquake tragedy still raw in our collective memory, city staff is taking fast strides to prepare Mercer Island for its own potential disaster.

On Feb. 1, Mercer Island Maintenance Director Glenn Boettcher and Utilities Engineer Rona Lin presented City Councilmembers with the latest updates to the Island’s Emergency Well Operations Strategy. Construction on the Rotary Park well, which will be used to supply the Island with water in case of an emergency, is near completion.

Much research and work has gone into this five-year project, which began in 2004 when the city conducted an assessment of the Island’s water system and concluded that the city’s Seattle Public Utilities water supply would likely be disrupted in a major earthquake. In response, the city conducted a feasibility study to establish an emergency well on Mercer Island.

In 2006, three potential areas were sited for drilling. Ultimately, the city chose Rotary Park, along 88th Avenue S.E. across from St. Monica Church, as the destined location. An Emergency Use Authorization Policy was established by the state, and the test well was designed.

Test drilling at Rotary Park began in 2007. A groundwater aquifer was encountered at a depth of more than 500 feet, and water quality tests revealed that the city could safely use this groundwater in an emergency.

The recent disaster in Haiti has helped city staff — along with much of the world — realize how crucial it is to be prepared with water for an emergency. This is especially true for Mercer Island, which sits squarely on the Seattle fault line — an area where several parallel fault strands have either broken the ground surface or caused deformation of geological materials. It is a hot-bed for earthquakes.

This alarming fact was discovered in 2006 through the efforts of the Pacific Northwest Center for Geologic Mapping at the University of Washington. The center examined nearly 3,000 borings, test pits, outcropping and other pieces of evidence to create a detailed picture of the Island’s geology.

According to the center’s Web site, “Modeling of ground shaking during a magnitude 6.7 Seattle fault earthquake predicts that the Island would be isolated for days. Water to the city’s 23,000 residents is supplied by a pipe suspended under I-90, which is susceptible to failure during such shaking.”

The need for an emergency well on Mercer Island is clear.

The city, for its part, has reacted to the geological warning with urgency. Construction is nearly complete on the emergency well, which is connected to a back-up generator at the Rotary Park reservoir for power. The facility is currently undergoing initial start-up and activity, and should be ready for operation by April.

Meanwhile, Emergency Preparedness Officer Jennifer Franklin is busy getting a team of confirmed Island volunteers to operate the well in an emergency. Because the Island fire and police departments will be preoccupied in a disaster, management of the well and water distribution will be the sole responsibility of Franklin’s volunteer team.

So far, 28 Islanders have signed up. Yet the police officer is eager to get at least 50.

“I’d love to have at least 50 people who could actually go ahead and assist. You have to figure that, in an emergency, I’d be lucky to get 20 people who can help,” Franklin said. “The well is supposed to open up in April. I hope we have a core group by then.”

Volunteer responsibilities include: manual operation of the well, management of traffic control and filling up the emergency water bags to distribute throughout the Island, among other tasks. Franklin said that once she gets a solid list of volunteers, she will organize in-depth training sessions for the team.

“They will all have to be trained, like any of my teams,” the officer said. “Hopefully, by our citywide emergency drill in September, they’ll be fully trained. That will be our final test.”

The city will send out a survey with its March and April utility bills asking for Emergency Well Operation volunteers. Islanders interested in volunteering can also contact Franklin at 275-7905.

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