Many people in the Northwest are expecting the Big One.
The Cascadia Subduction Zone, stretching 700 miles from California to Vancouver, British Columbia, releases a major earthquake approximately every 300 – 400 years. The last one occurred in 1700, estimated at 9.2 on the Richter scale.
The odds are one in three for The Big One to occur within 50 years, and one in ten for The Really Big One, according to Chris Goldfinger, Oregon State University earthquake expert.
A 9.0-magnitude earthquake in the Pacific Northwest could last three to five minutes and generate a tsunami that could devastate 140,000 square miles of coastal area. The earthquake could affect 7 million people in the cities of Seattle, Portland, Tacoma, and Eugene and Salem in Oregon.
The worst damage is projected to occur towards the south of the zone. Bellingham and Whatcom County would shake but escape the very worst of the tsunami – The city and county are projecting few casualties but flooding in Marine and Zuanich parks, the new waterfront developments and at the mouth of the Nooksack River.
Mud and rock slides could block off highways to the south. Railroad tracks would bend; water and electricity could be cut off. It could take weeks for the utilities to be repaired, with most relief efforts focused on devastated areas to the south.
In preparation, Bellingham and the county are involved in extensive planning for the results in coordination with local and federal agencies.
In July 2015, The New Yorker published the Pulitzer Prize-winning article “The Really Big One” by Kathryn Schulz, which warned of the ruin coming to the Northwest.
“Together, the sloshing, sliding, and shaking will trigger fires, flooding, pipe failures, dam breaches, and hazardous-material spills,” Schulz wrote. “Any one of these second-order disasters could swamp the original earthquake in terms of cost, damage, or casualties — and one of them definitely will.” (1)
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates that more than 1,100 people may be killed in the earthquake, with 13,500 more killed in the ensuing tsunami. The injured could top 30,000, and treating them will be more difficult if communication and transportation infrastructure are damaged. (2)
FEMA also estimates it will have to provide shelter for 1 million displaced people and food and water for an estimated 2.5 million.
Since Whatcom County is expected to fare better than areas to the south, it may be used as a staging area for the National Guard to conduct relief operations, said John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management.
When the Cascadia fault fails, most of Whatcom’s problems will come from isolation with damaged roads.
“Highway 9 … Interstate 5, Highway 11, Chuckanut Drive, all of those are known slide areas,” Gargett said. “We anticipate that we’ll lose all transportation for maybe up to a week coming north and people’s ability to go south. On the north side, Canada … we found in Cascadia Rising that the same shaking will probably shut down Highway 1, so all of a sudden, Whatcom County and the lower mainland are pretty much on their own.”
While the Cascadia Subduction Zone gets most of the attention, there is another potential earthquake in the area. The Boulder Creek Fault Zone is in northern Whatcom County and could cause a 6.8-magnitude earthquake, according to the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
Though it will be smaller in magnitude than Cascadia, Boulder Creek may cause more local damage because it lies in the middle of Whatcom County, not several hundred miles away, Gargett said.
Less attention is given to the Boulder Creek fault because it would only affect a few counties. Relief from the state and cities would be readily available, unlike in the Cascadia scenario.
Despite the doom and gloom, Whatcom County is well prepared for a disaster. The City and Port of Bellingham, sheriff’s office and other organizations prepare in collaboration. They also work with civilian groups who are trained to respond to disasters and raise awareness among the public.
The Whatcom Unified Emergency Coordination Center (ECC) is the center for emergency response in the county allowing city and county agencies to plan, train and share information in one place.
Whatcom’s ECC also works with Canada, which provides logistical options if bridges are damaged in the earthquake, Gargett said. For example, the Abbotsford and Bellingham airports could be used to fly supplies to either side of the Nooksack River if the bridges are damaged.
The collaboration with the different agencies all help to increase awareness and response coordination.
“The biggest issue that emergency managers have is situational awareness,” Paul Gazdik, emergency manager for the City of Bellingham, said. “Being able to know what happened, what damage, what resources are you going to be able to move, or order, or ask for when the state or FEMA eventually get there.”
FEMA policy recognizes that properly trained emergency services are the best to deal with disasters, but it may take time to reach communities. Civilians can join a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) to help in disasters if first responders are unavailable.
CERT members are trained in first aid, light search and rescue, fire safety, disaster psychology and more. At the end of the training, students participate in a simulated disaster, with live role-playing victims for CERT students to demonstrate what they’ve learned. (3)
CERT started in 1895 in Los Angeles when stories surfaced after an earthquake hit Mexico City that told of many civilians who tried to help their neighbors being injured. The Los Angeles Fire Department began training civilians on safe responses to disasters. FEMA adopted the program and took it nationwide, CERT Manager Greg Hope said.
Whatcom’s CERT began in 1999 and has trained about 1,500 members. There are currently around 400 active members, Hope said.
The Volunteer Mobilization Center
The Volunteer Mobilization Center (VMC) works with the Sheriff’s Department to organize untrained volunteers who want to help after a disaster.
The VMC was formed to decentralize volunteer command. Instead of having volunteers go to a central hub and then be sent back to their neighborhoods, they can report to places in their own communities and be directed to help locally.
A key part of the VMC’s job is to issue state worker cards to volunteers, which covers volunteers with state-run insurance, Unit Leader Terri Temple said.
“If you go out sandbagging, and you throw your back out, or you’re helping milk cows and some cow kicks you, or your insurance wants to know why were you driving your vehicle toward the disaster when everybody else was going the other way; you’re now considered a state worker,” she said. “You’re covered by state worker’s insurance.”
The VMC recruits and trains people on how to work with volunteers; they also run simulations and educate people on disaster preparedness while gaining a psychological benefit.
“Volunteering gives you a sense of control,” Temple said. “It lets you take back that chaos, to say, ‘I’m not a victim I can do x.’ And it gives you a way to feel part of a community.“
In June 2016, FEMA conducted an exercise in Washington and Oregon to test how local and state agencies would respond to the Cascadia earthquake.
The 180-page document, entitled “Cascadia After Action Report,” is available online. It reported on predicted infrastructure damage, injury expectations, transportation damage and more.
The exercise tested Emergency Operation Centers (EOCs) on federal, state, city, county, military and tribal levels, according to the after-action report published by FEMA. The exercise focused on six “core capabilities:” operational communications, public health and medical services, mass care services, situational assessment, critical transportation and operational coordination.
“The Cascadia Rising 2016 Exercise marked an unprecedented level of EOC activation and coordination in the Pacific Northwest emergency management community,” the report stated. “Responding to a disaster of this magnitude allowed participants to understand the scope and gravity of the situation.”
During the exercise, CERT worked with the Bellingham fire and police departments and Bellingham Public Works, Hope said. CERT members went into designated neighborhoods and conducted a simulated damage assessment. They then set up an emergency communications network to report their assessment back to the fire department.
The VMC set up mobilization centers and had members practice directing volunteers.
Since the exercise, Whatcom has been improving its communication network.
“When we aren’t getting that information here, we’re thinking, ‘Everything’s quiet; is it quiet because nothing’s happening or is it quiet because people can’t report to us and let us know what’s going on?’” Gazdik said. “So, we tried to work with our amateur radio operators that were able to communicate up and we created a process for information flow so that we could give the best available picture.”
Whatcom EOC has more training operations planned, including a simulated Mt. Baker eruption.
How to Prepare
The Washington Emergency Management Division recommends households have three days’ worth of water and food stored in case of a disaster. Gargett and the VMC recommend having two weeks worth of supplies. Along with food and water, emergency agencies recommend keeping medical supplies, warm clothes, hygiene supplies and important documents.
Another way to prepare is the annual ShakeOut earthquake drill. On Oct. 19, people around the world practice Drop, Cover and Hold On, the standard earthquake safety practice. More than 55 million people took part in ShakeOut drills throughout 2016, according to ShakeOut’s website.
Gargett and Gazdik said individuals and families should practice earthquake safety until it becomes natural.
With the training, organization, groups and improvements, Gargett believes Whatcom is well prepared for a disaster.
“If, in my opinion, you measured us before Cascadia Rising, we’d be in the 70th percentile, as prepared as any community on average. And I would say after Cascadia Rising, due to the awareness and just the education of the earthquake effects … we’re probably at 80 percent now.”
What To Do in a Disaster
1. Take care of your loved ones.
2. Protect yourself from falling debris, broken glass and sharp objects.
3. Check natural gas and propane and shut them off if needed.
4. Shut off water. This will keep clean water in the house and prevent polluted water from getting into your system.
5. Place a “Help” or “OK” sign on your door or window.
6. Put your fire extinguisher on the sidewalk. If your neighbors need one, it will be available.
7. Go to the neighborhood gathering site.
Form teams at the site to:
8. Listen to the Emergency Alert System to keep neighbors informed
• Check the elderly, disabled and children
• Check gas meters and lines and shut them off as needed.
• Check homes with “Help” signs or with no signs.
Information provided by Whatcom Unified Emergency Management.
More information can be found at whatcomready.com
Disaster Preparedness Kit
• The federal government recommends that people have a three-days worth of supplies in case of a disaster.
• Authorities in the Pacific Northwest suggest that people have a two-to-three week supply of food and water in case of the Cascadia Earthquake.
• One gallon of water per person per day
• Two weeks’ worth of food
• Batteries and hand crank radio
• First aid kit
• Whistle to signal for help
• Dust mask
• Plastic sheeting and duct tape
• Tools to turn off utilities
• Can opener
• Local maps
• Supplies for babies or pets, as applicable
• Important documents
• Fire extinguisher
• Chlorine bleach and medical dropper
• Use nine parts water and one part bleach to use as a disinfectant. Or 16 drops of bleach in one gallon of water to treat it.
• Fire extinguisher
• Eating utensils (Paper plates, can opener, etc.)
• Sleeping bag
John Simmons is a journalism student at Western Washington University. He is also minoring in political science.