How to Prepare for an Earthquake in Washington State


Washington State experiences earthquakes almost every day, but if you’re not prepared, they could cause immense damage and be dangerous to you and your loved ones.

Washington has the second highest risk of large earthquakes in the United States due to its geological setting, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

More than 1,000 earthquakes occur in Washington each year, and in the past 125 years the state has experienced at least 20 destructive earthquakes, according to the state’s Division of Emergency Management.

Large earthquakes are less frequent than small earthquakes that occur almost daily in Washington, but can cause immense damage to homes, roads, buildings, bridges, and utilities you rely on .

But Washington residents also need to be prepared for earthquakes that occur off the coast of Washington that could cause tsunamis with 42-foot-high waves.

Here’s what Washingtonians need to know about earthquakes and how to prepare before the next big one hits.

Killer earthquake warning system
Damage caused by an earthquake that struck the Washington Federal Savings Building in Olympia, Washington on February 28, 2001. Bruce Kelman PA

The causes of the earthquake

Earthquakes are caused by the movement of the Earth as tectonic plates move. “The process of rock breaking and moving releases a large amount of energy that travels through the Earth in the form of seismic waves,” according to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

Most earthquakes occur along faults or fractures in the earth where rocks intersect.

These sudden changes and movements cause the ground to shake as the energy moves in waves through the areas.

Risk of large earthquakes in Washington

Future earthquakes are expected and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources says that over the next 50 years most populated areas of Washington have a 40-80% chance of a large earthquake occur.

“Washington is where two plates come together giving us the potential for large offshore earthquakes on the Cascadia subduction zone as well as the possibility of deeper earthquakes such as the Nisqually earthquake in 2001 which caused tremors in the southern I-5 corridor. Puget Sound area,” Mouse Reusch, regional coordinator for ShakeAlert wrote in an email. “We also have several near-surface faults that are producing earthquake-like tremors over the past few years near Bremerton and Monroe.”

Many active faults in Washington state carry a high risk of earthquakes, and some faults in the state have not been studied enough to determine their potential risk.

“The USGS (United States Geological Survey) estimates that the chance of a Cascadia earthquake is about a 10-15% chance over the next 50 years, with crustal faults such as the Seattle Fault having a about 5-7% probability over the next 50 years,” Washington Geological Survey geologist Daniel Eungard wrote in an email.

earthquake map.PNG
This map shows the intensity of ground shaking that would occur during an earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone. The intensity decreases as the waves move from west to east. The white dots represent the locations of previous major earthquakes. Washington Geological Survey

earthquake alerts

Washington residents have several ways to receive earthquake warnings before a tremor occurs.

The state’s Division of Emergency Management encourages Washington residents to sign up for Wireless Emergency Alerts, “OPT IN” Local Emergency Alerts, and ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning Alerts.

Wireless Emergency Alerts sends text messages to your cell phone to alert you to earthquakes, AMBER alerts, tsunami warnings and more. Residents should access their phone settings to ensure alerts are enabled.

“OPT IN” local emergency alerts come from your specific county that offers localized emergency alerts to send to your phone as a text or email. Residents wishing to receive local emergency alerts should register for the service online through the Washington Division of Emergency Management.

ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning Alerts notify residents of incoming earthquakes through the MyShake app, built-in software on Android phones, and the wireless emergency alert system on all phones. Residents can download the app to their phone through the App Store or Google Play.

The United States Geological Survey has a live map of current and recent earthquakes around the world, along with their magnitude.

How to prepare for an earthquake

When planning for an earthquake, you should prepare to be alone for at least three days, according to the Washington Department of Natural Resources. The department also advises Washington residents to:

Develop an emergency response plan.

Be prepared for other hazards that may result from an earthquake, such as a tsunami or landslide.

Secure items in your home or workplace that could cause damage in an earthquake, such as a large bookcase, heavy picture frames, or flammable appliances.

Consider whether you should purchase earthquake insurance.

Participate in the Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drills which take place on the third Thursday of October.

The US Department of Homeland Security also advises to prepare for an earthquake:

Prepare a supply kit including essential items such as food, water, fire extinguishers and flashlights.

Store fragile or heavy items at the bottom of shelves.

Solve all structural problems in your home or buildings.

What to do during an earthquake

It is extremely important to protect yourself during an earthquake because most injuries are caused by flying or falling objects.

“During an earthquake, remember to drop, cover and hold on to protect yourself from shaking as well as the potential of objects falling on you during shaking,” Reusch wrote in an email.

If an earthquake occurs, drop to the ground, cover yourself, and hold on to something sturdy, such as a table or desk. Covering your head and neck is extremely important, and staying on your knees and crawling will help protect your vital organs.

Here are some ways to protect yourself during an earthquake, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security:

If you are inside, stay inside and avoid the doors.

If you are outdoors, move away from buildings or other objects that could fall on you.

If you are driving, pull over, stop your car and apply the emergency brake.

If you are in bed, roll over on your stomach and cover your head and neck with pillows.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources also has some tips for staying safe during an earthquake:

Stay away from windows, glass, doors and exterior walls and anything that could fall in an earthquake.

Do not use the elevators, try to change rooms or go out during an earthquake.

Do not pass under a door.

Avoid stopping your car near signs, traffic lights, trees or buildings.

What to do after an earthquake

Here are some ways to protect yourself after an earthquake, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security:

Be aware of safety hazards such as damaged buildings, power lines, and leaking gas or water pipes.

Expect aftershocks after an earthquake and be prepared to fall, take cover and hold on again if necessary.

Get out of damaged buildings and stay away from damaged buildings.

If you get trapped, text or try to make a sound without shouting and cover our mouths with your shirt.

If you are in an area affected by tsunamis, follow the evacuation routes and go to higher ground.

Dial 911 if you need medical assistance.

Earthquakes can cause tsunamis which can be more harmful than the earthquake itself. In Washington state, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake could create a tsunami with waves up to 42 feet high, according to a recent report from the Tacoma Tribune.

“Anytime you experience long and/or strong shaking while on the coast, it’s a good idea to seek higher ground. The best plan is to be aware of your surroundings and know before you even that a jolt would happen what route you would take to get to safety and be prepared to do it on foot,” Reusch wrote in an email.

Alyse Messmer-Smith is a duty reporter at the Bellingham Herald. If you enjoy stories like this, consider supporting our work by subscribing to our journal.

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