With Seattle considered a logical target if North Korea were to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S., a bipartisan group of Washington lawmakers wants to nix a 1984 provision disallowing state emergency planners from crafting a plan to specifically address such an attack.
State law requires emergency planners to prepare a comprehensive, all-hazard emergency plan, but under the 1984 law, that plan “may not include preparation for emergency evacuation or relocation of residents in anticipation of nuclear attack.”
The proposed bill, which was introduced last week by Republican Sen. Mark Miloscia and Sen. David Frockt, a Democrat, would strike that language from state law.
North Korea, experts say, is likely a few years away from developing a missile that could put Seattle in range. The country has successfully tested nuclear weapons.
A nuclear strike in Seattle would kill thousands, but experts think it’s unlikely North Korea would target the city because the U.S. could wipe out the nation with its own prodigious arsenal.
Still, the attention to the issue from legislators represents a shift in perception of nuclear threats.
In 1984, when the legislation took effect, U.S. tensions with the former Soviet Union were easing, said Dick Nelson, a former state representative from Seattle.
“Anything that was a prescription for more concern, like civil-defense exercise, was felt to be nonproductive,” he said. “People didn’t want to be in any sort of posture that people were anticipating more (nuclear) threats. We wanted to reduce the threat.”
At the time, some lawmakers felt that people had little chance of surviving a nuclear attack and that the state was better off planning for other disasters.
Lawmakers in office now said they don’t fear a North Korean nuclear strike, but said they didn’t want the 1984 law to prevent preparation.
“To see that there was an actual prohibition about this, to me it didn’t make common sense,” Miloscia said. “The region is completely different from it was back then . We’re more sophisticated at emergency planning. To throw your hands up and say, ‘Everyone’s going to be destroyed,’ I think that’s silly.”
State Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, who is also a sponsor of the bill, said he was surprised to read about the 1984 law in The Seattle Times.
“I said, ‘Are you kidding me? We have a law that prevents emergency planning?’ ” Palumbo said. “We (legislators) were dumbfounded we wouldn’t have contingency plans for any kind of harmful nightmare like that.”
Palumbo said he’s been following interactions between the Trump administration and North Korea.
“Given the saber-rattling, it’s prudent to make sure we’re not preventing emergency services and the National Guard from preparing for the worst,” he said.
Nelson, the former legislator, said he thought his bill was worthy of new discussion.
“It’s appropriate to raise the issue, given the … political climate internationally,” he said.
Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Emergency Management Division, said that the agency hasn’t taken a stance on the measure, but noted that they “have very limited resources.”
“We have to put people on what the greatest threat is. And in Washington, that’s an earthquake,” she said.
Miloscia said he thinks the state should plan for both.
“Radiation, burn victims — there are massive emergency needs you have to meet, and that’s different from an earthquake,” he said.
The bill has been referred to a committee that is headed by Miloscia, but Miloscia said he hasn’t decided whether to give it a hearing this year. Lawmakers are in the midst of a special session to address education funding as part of an overall two-year state operating budget that must be in place before the end of June.
Miloscia said he wanted to start the conversation before the 2018 legislative session.