Twenty years ago this week, Washington was shaken by an earthquake centered northeast of Olympia. The Nisqually quake twisted the Capitol dome off its base, peeled bricks off buildings (in some cases crushing cars below), shattered windows in the air traffic control tower at Sea-Tac International Airport, and caused more than $2 billion in damage.
But it wasn’t The Big One.
Scientists warn that eventually — maybe soon, maybe not for hundreds of years — the region will see an earthquake that registers a magnitude of 9.0. The Nisqually quake registered 6.8.
“I call it the fender-bender earthquake,” Eric Holdeman, who was King County’s emergency management director in 2001, told The Seattle Times. “The other types of earthquakes we face — from the Seattle Fault or the Cascadia Subduction Zone — those are the head-on collision, rollover accidents.”
Since then, state and local officials have prepared for the big collision of a major earthquake, but more is needed; Washington ranks second behind California as the most quake-prone region in the United States. And the pandemic of the past year and, more recently, the collapse of the electric grid in Texas have demonstrated the consequences of a failure to prepare.
As The Columbian reported in 2012: “In the aftermath of a Cascadia quake, it’s likely that power could be out for weeks, perhaps months. Bridges could be similarly out of service, roads and train tracks damaged. It’s possible Clark County would be completely cut off from neighboring Portland for a time.”
Officials warn that residents must “be ready to be an island unto yourself.” Each family should have a disaster preparedness kit and a plan of action.
Structurally, Clark County is in better shape than it was 20 years ago. Both the Vancouver and Evergreen school districts have rebuilt or updated several buildings to new seismic standards; local fire districts have rebuilt or retrofitted stations; and even the Vancouver city government has moved into a modern city hall.
Such measures are a wise investment. A 2018 report from the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries determined that moderate upgrades to older buildings in the Portland area could slash repair costs from $24 billion to $6.5 billion and reduce the number of people killed or injured in a major earthquake from 18,000 to about 2,000.
Starting in May, the ShakeAlert System will provide Washington residents with earthquake warnings on their cellphones before the ground starts shaking. The system also will allow utilities and industries to automatically shut down processes or close valves to reduce damage.
Seattle Emergency Management Director Curry Mayer told The Seattle Times: “There has been some really comprehensive work done in both infrastructure and in training and planning and exercises. Is it perfect? No. Any jurisdiction that tells you they are totally prepared is just lying.”
The point is that there is no way to be completely prepared for a major earthquake. Scientists warn that The Big One will liquefy the soil in many areas, cause thousands of landslides throughout the state, topple buildings, damage water and sewer services, crumble bridges and roads, disrupt communications and halt basic services for an unpredictable period of time.
There is no way to avoid all of that or prevent the earth from shaking. But as the Nisqually earthquake reminded us 20 years ago, it is a good idea to prepare as much as possible.