Ready for a big one in Clark County?




Editor’s note: Here is a story The Columbian published March 15, 2010:

Geologists say it’s only a matter of time until a giant earthquake like the one that ravaged Chile strikes the Pacific Northwest.

Sheila Stark plans to be ready.

Stark, 50, has volunteered for the city of Vancouver’s Community Emergency Response Team since she completed the program’s preparedness class eight years ago.

She and her husband keep shoes under the bed, in case the Big One hits in the middle of the night. Glass would shatter, making even the trip from the bed to the closet perilous.

The couple secured their bookcases to the wall, so they won’t tumble. They fastened the hot water heater, which would serve as a reserve of potable water. They installed safety latches on kitchen cupboards, to prevent plates and glasses from becoming dangerous projectiles. And the couple keeps several three-day emergency kits of food, water and supplies — one in each of their cars and one in the garage.

“Some people just don’t believe it’s going to happen,” Stark said. “They figure, ‘I’ll call 911 and the firemen and police will all be there.’ We’ve got to break that thought.”

Emergency crews will have to set priorities, and residents will have to fend for themselves for days, perhaps weeks, said Cheryl Bledsoe, emergency manager for Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency.

“People don’t like to prepare because it’s admitting something bad will happen,” Bledsoe said.

Yet there’s a 1 in 7 chance that a Cascadia Subduction Zone quake will occur in the next 50 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

“It could be tomorrow. It could be in five minutes,” said Evelyn Roeloffs, a geophysicist on the USGS’s Western Earthquake Hazards Team. ” Earthquakes don’t happen on a schedule.”

That uncertainty leaves people feeling fatalistic. Bledsoe said her mother is a perfect example. When her mother says, “I’m going to die in the Big One,” Bledsoe replies, “You’d better hope so.” She’s joking, but dealing with the extended disruption of utilities and transportation systems means people will be without water, food and other necessities — unless they’re prepared.

Keeping three days’ worth of food and water on hand is a good place to start, Bledsoe said, but it’s even better to have two or three months of supplies. Dried beans and flour are great, but if you’re not a cook, you can always buy cases of ramen, she said.

“You don’t have to go out and buy everything at once,” she said.

Start with three days, then work up to two weeks, advises Jan LeBaron, who runs Healthy Harvest, a store in northeast Vancouver that sells freeze-dried food. She started the business 22 years ago when she was looking to buy a 72-hour emergency kit and decided she could put together something better than what was available.

“Look at what happened with Hurricane Katrina,” LaBaron said. “The people who are stocking up are more aware this could happen to us too.”

Their efforts raise eyebrows, however. That’s so even among Stark’s friends.

“Some of them think I’m a bit weird. They think I’m overcautious,” Stark said. She said she’s always been safety-minded.

“I’m not anxious,” she insists.

Just prepared.

be prepared

Here are a few things emergency management officials recommend doing now to prepare for a giant earthquake:

  • Keep at least a three-day supply of food and water handy, as well as extra clothes, shoes and toiletries.
  • Stockpile food you would actually eat, and include a few comfort foods, said Cheryl Bledsoe, emergency manager for Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency. Rotate your supply before items expire.
  • Ask your doctor for an emergency prescription so you can keep an extra month of medications on hand.
  • Set up an out-of-state contact. Local phone networks will likely be overloaded, but sometimes long distance lines still work.
  • Establish a plan for where your family will reunite.
  • Secure your water heater, which would be a supply of potable water.
  • Look around your house for hazards — heavy picture frames over the bed, unsecured bookcases, kitchen cabinets with no latches. Kitchens and garages can be especially dangerous places when the earth moves, Bledsoe said.
  • Feel overwhelmed? Washington State Emergency Management breaks down preparedness steps month by month in its Prepare in a Year plan. Find it online at