The Big One

I have lived in Northwest Washington for fifteen years now. Sixteen, if you count the time from birth to moving out of the state around a year old, but I don’t generally count that because I don’t remember it at all.

I have experienced earthquakes here. The most notable was the one in the early 2000’s that originated near Olympia and actually caused a bit of damage to some buildings near the point of origin. I was home sick from school. My mom had my brother (also home sick) and I come stand in a doorway with her while we watched the chandelier above the kitchen table swing. We were over 100 miles from the epicenter. More commonly, I’ve experienced small earthquakes; the cats wake me up in the middle of the night, I vaguely note that there’s an earthquake happening, and I fall back to sleep. I’m not even exaggerating. If you’ve never experienced a tiny earthquake, it really is that uneventful.

I’ve heard my mom talk about the San Francisco earthquake, which she was in. She saw the parking lot outside of the dentist office where she worked rolling. Yes; pavement can roll during an earthquake. It’s literally waves moving through the earth, so the earth can behave rather like water in larger quakes.

I had no idea until today, as I read a sobering article, that we could experience something even bigger and more devastating than the San Francisco earthquake, right here in the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps even worse, it will be immediately followed by a devastating tsunami that could wipe out most of the west coast on the west site of I-5.

The more frightening thing is that geologists didn’t even know until a few decades ago, but now the evidence is piling up that not only is possible, it’s likely. We’re overdue for an earthquake as severe as 9.2, and there’s a 1/3 chance that we’ll experience one in the upper 8’s within fifty years. Because this is relatively new information to the region, many homes and cities were already built before we knew that we’d experience anything significantly worse than the one I weathered in a kitchen doorway at ten years old. There’s been some changes reflecting the new knowledge; houses have had to meet certain earthquake codes since the 90’s, certain kinds of buildings can no longer be built within the area potentially in the tsunami zone. But houses before those building codes have to be retrofitted to survive a high-magnitude earthquake, and many aren’t, and previously existing hospitals are still allowed to operate in the tsunami zone.

We don’t have any of the earthquake technology that more prepared places like Japan do. In some places, there is an early warning system that responds to the first jolt that precedes an earthquake. It gives barely any warning, but it’s just enough to sound alarms, to stop surgeries, to alert hospitals and fire stations. All we have is our pets, who can hear that first sound waves.

Worse, there are millions of people living within the tsunami zone, and its expected that thousands of them will die and tens of thousands be injured. There will only be about fifteen minutes to get to high ground right after the earthquake. That’s not much, particularly for anyone on the beach. I pray that this will happen in the dead of winter, when tourists and families aren’t enjoying the water on a warm day.

I feel very, very grateful right now to be living in a town where I know for a fact that our airport — in one of the lower areas of town right off of I-5 — is 140 feet above sea level. My house is a little higher. Even in the worst case scenario, if I’m in town, I won’t have to worry about being hit by the tsunami. I just have to survive the earthquake and the immediate aftermath until I can get out.

There are some things that I have no control over:

Whether my husband is at work at the time, if he’ll survive the quake, and if he’s in a situation that will have him away from the tsunami zone.

Whether we’ll be in our town or another that isn’t at risk.

Whether we’ll be in a building that is sound enough to not kill us during the earthquake.

Whether the earthquake even happens in my lifetime, while we’re living in the area that would be affected.


But it does make me want to prepare for the things that I can control:

Whether we have enough food and water to survive a few weeks until we can get clear of the disaster area.

Whether we have the supplies to stay warm and dry during that time, especially if its winter.

Whether my house is as earthquake-proof as I can reasonably make a house built in the 80’s.


I’ll be honest. It terrifies me a bit.

Do you live in the Pacific Northwest? Do you live west of I-5? What have you done to prepare for a disaster, particularly one as possible and serious as this one?