Schools prepare for earthquake by enrolling in awareness program

This October states across the nation will be participating in the Great Shake Out earthquake drill.

“Being prepared is simple and straight forward,” said Brendan Cowan, director of San Juan County’s Department of Emergency Management.

On Oct. 15, at 10:15 a.m, participants practice drop, cover and hold. It is also a time to review quake preparedness efforts. By signing up, you will receive information and reminders.

This year, Cowan is excited that all of the public school districts in the islands are signed up. Stillpoint School, a private elementary school on San Juan is also participating.

“The schools are our most responsive and willing partners,” said Cowan.

On Orcas, several members of Orcas Island Fire and Rescue will be on campus following the drill right next to students.

“Keeping students safe and preparing them for a safe and bright future is our mission as educators,” said Orcas School District Superintendent Eric Webb.  “Participating in this national shakedown drill is paramount to that mission.”

For superintendent of San Juan Island School District Danna Diaz, earthquake drills are imperative to design, organize and practice what to do when an earthquake strikes.

“Most importantly, it is critical that we have a strategy in place to communicate with families and the community during the emergency,” said Diaz.

Her district has created an emergency preparedness committee. If you want to serve on the committee email at

“I look forward to creating a plan for our students and employees that will ensure everyone is safe and united with their loved ones,” she said.

Lopez School Superintendent Brian Auckland said practicing for any emergency helps students follow a planned emergency routine that will keep them safe, establish a pattern of good choices and create a sense of orderliness.

“These patterns help to reduce student anxiety, fear, and emotional stress,” he added. “It is beneficial to practice each possible emergency with a sincere approach that outlines the importance of everyone’s safety.”

Cowan said that often when kids are taught something their parents will learn by extension. Plus kids will carry this idea of being prepared for the rest of their lives.

“We know it’s going to happen,” he said. “We have 100 percent certainty it will happen so I want to build earthquake preparedness into our culture.”

According to the DEM’s webpage entitled Common Tsunami Questions, “In the most likely scenario, San Juan County will have plenty of warning (due to the large quake we feel) before a tsunami in the form of an extremely large earthquake.”

The tsunami could come in 45 minutes or less after a large quake, which is defined as rating 5.0 or greater on the logarithmic scale. Although 9.0 would be incomprehensibly larger than a 5.0, Cowan describes both as large enough to cause concern.

But not all quakes cause tsunamis. The quake has to lift the sea floor to be followed by a tsunami, and according to Cowan, the majority of undersea quakes don’t cause a tsunami.

For many years quake experts believed that the closest fault, the Cascadia subduction zone, was safely aseismic. When they found mysteriously sunken Northwest forests that appeared to have been killed by salt intrusion in the year 1700, their conclusion changed.

It turns out that the eastward-moving Juan de Fuca tectonic plate is not sliding smoothly beneath the westward-moving North American plate; instead, it’s bunching up, building up tremendous pressure that scientists believe will eventually let loose in the space of a few minutes.

If the fault’s five segments all “go off” at once, a 9.0-plus magnitude megaquake could launch twin killer tsunamis, one toward the Pacific coast and one toward Japan. Seismologists now believe that’s what caused what is known as the Orphan Tsunami, which killed 1,000 people in 1700. When the plates finally slipped free, the pent-up Pacific coast dropped by about five feet, submerging the forest.

Predictions as to when the plates will roar again vary, but the Washington State Department of Natural Resource Chief Hazards Geologist Tim Walsh has said six past earthquakes affecting Washington have occurred 500 to 550 years apart.

The year 2015 will make it 315 years and counting since the last big event. Canadian and U.S. experts have offered probabilities of 14 to 29 percent that the event could occur during the next 50 years.

So for people in the emergency business like Cowan, not being prepared for a quake doesn’t make sense.

“It’s not that different than having an air bag or house insurance even though you may never be in catastrophic car wreck or have a house burn down. These are little things you do every day just in case,” said Cowan. “Earthquakes are rare but when they do happen the impacts are high.”