Lessons from Chile: What the Pacific Northwest can learn from the Chilean earthquake | Guest Column

First Haiti, now Chile. Widespread destruction on a scale most of us have seen only in a Hollywood movie has many in the Pacific Northwest wondering what it would look like here after a similar quake.

And the reality is, of course, that it will happen here.

The magnitude 8.8 quake in Chile is nearly geologically identical to the one that will eventually occur off the outer Washington coast. We don’t know when, but we do know that it has been more than 300 years since the last one, and we’re nearly due. So by looking at Chile in particular, we can learn a bit about what to expect, and most importantly, how to prepare.

Information from Chile is still trickling in, but we can make a few assumptions about the effect a similar quake would have on the islands:

— Individual preparedness matters above all else. Having enough food and water on hand for you, your family and your pets for at least a week is absolutely critical. If we’re all prepared to take care of ourselves, it removes one of the most critical challenges facing a community after a disaster.

Roads, bridges, and other infrastructure will be heavily impacted, especially on the mainland. We need to assume that ferries, I-5, Highway 20 and other routes we use all the time will be out of commission for some period of time. This only heightens our need to be prepared to take care of ourselves.

— Tsunamis are a real danger.. Understanding tsunami behavior is a young science, but current models predict that when a quake like Chile’s happens here, it will cause a tsunami in the waters of Puget Sound and the San Juans. As island communities, we need to pay attention to this risk, no matter how improbable it sounds. Some communities in Chile that survived the quake were destroyed by the resulting tsunami.

— Utilities and communication networks will be out of service or severely impacted. We need to be able to keep ourselves warm and have access to water even if lines are down and pipes broken. Be prepared to have no phones or internet. Have a battery powered radio on hand, a predetermined meeting place for family members, and don’t ask for help from emergency responders unless your situation is truly critical. 

— Fire is still a major problem following a quake. Know how to shut your gas off, and do so as soon as possible if there is any sign of a leak in your gas lines.

Those are some of the most obvious impacts that we’ll experience here. But, there’s also some very good news, especially for the islands:

Islanders are a self sufficient and hardy group. Chances are that following a quake, neighbors helping neighbors will be the order of the day, and I have no doubt that a major disaster will only enhance the community minded spirit of cooperation that pervades our islands. 

When it comes to quakes, bedrock and stick-built construction are good things. Rock tends to minimize ground shaking, and wooden buildings flex to absorb the movement. Fortunately, we have plenty of rock and wooden houses in our islands. We shouldn’t see widespread collapses like they’re having in Chile. 

We have a few things going for us with tsunamis as well. One, we’ll feel the shaking. So, if you feel a major quake, head to high ground (and remember if could take up to 3 hours for wave to hit). Two, high ground is never far away in the San Juans. If you’re 20 feet above the water, you should be well out of harm’s way. Remember that the first wave might not be the biggest, and that a tsunami here will slosh around our waters for up to 12 or more hours after the quake. 

One thing that we see in disasters these days is how quickly power, cell phones, and even Internet can be up and running again. So be patient, rest assured that crews are working hard, and stay off the phone except for emergencies. 

Modern building codes work. Houses built to code fare astonishingly well, even in larger quakes. Those living in older homes should seriously consider making some relatively simple improvements that will drastically increase a house’s ability to survive a quake.

All in all, the chance of experiencing a major quake any given day is very low, but when measured over the course of a lifetime, the odds are quite high. Preparing is relatively simple and there’s no reason not to start today.

For more information on earthquakes and how to be ready for them, visit www.sanjuandem.net/quakes, or call 370-7612 with any questions at all.


— Brendan Cowan is director of San Juan County/Friday Harbor Department of Emergency Management. Contact him at brendanc@sanjuandem.net

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