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Originally published Sunday, September 15, 2013 at 7:52 PM

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Two-year initiative looks at disaster preparation

Last week, King County Executive Dow Constantine and local business leaders took the first steps in a two-year initiative to plan for a long-term response to a major disaster.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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When the next big earthquake rocks King County, emergency responders have a plan. The first week or two is all mapped out. After that? It’s a mystery.

Would Seattle close its business district for a set period of time, as Christchurch, New Zealand, did? How long until construction crews could rebuild and schools could open again?

Long-term planning after a major disaster is the subject of a new two-year initiative that includes King County Executive Dow Constantine; Maud Daudon, the president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce; and business and nonprofit leaders from Microsoft, the Union Gospel Mission and elsewhere.

“Today was about credibility. Are we really serious about moving forward? Are we really going to do this?” said Walt Hubbard, the director of King County Emergency Management, after the group’s first meeting last week.

The meeting, at Microsoft, brought together an enthusiastic group of CEOs. They won’t be doing much of the work, but their buy-in is essential, said Scott Miles, a professor at Western Washington University.

A study from a state task force that included Miles, Hubbard and four others looked into statewide resilience and figured out that local government and businesses hadn’t done much planning for the weeks, months and years after a big disaster, when there are a lot of decisions to be made.

The task force looked at disasters in Christchurch, where a 2011 quake tore up the busi ness district, and in Japan, where residents were prepared for an earthquake two and a half years ago, but not for the tsunami that followed it.

“You can’t be prepared for 100 percent, and the catalyst is unfortunately the disaster itself,” said Tomoko Dodo, senior consul at the Consulate General of Japan. She attended the meeting to offer lessons from Japan’s experience. “The enemy is complacency,” she said.

In Christchurch, Miles said, leaders decided to close the business district for a set period of time, offering predictability. They learned that downtown businesses could weather being relocated for a known period of time better than not knowing if their offices would open again next week or the week after that.

The next step for King County’s resilience effort is to hold a series of workshops on health, rebuilding the economy, infrastructure and other issues.

A town hall in June will conclude that work, then a countywide team will work on details.

“There is a burgeoning probability of a catastrophic disaster,” said Constantine. “We have to rebuild in a way that doesn’t just patch potholes.”

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com. On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter

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