Surviving the ‘Really Big One’

Did you read the New Yorker‘s recent article about the potential for a whopper of an earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone here in the Pacific Northwest, “The Really Big One?”

Yes? Then you’re probably freaked out.

It’s true that our region has the potential for a major earthquake. A MAJOR EARTHQUAKE. But before you start looking into real estate out-of-state, know this: the vast majority of people will survive, even in a 9.0 earthquake. Without a doubt, the number of fatalities and casualties will be devastating, but most people will live. How we get through and recover from something so catastrophic is something we hold in our hands now, before the earthquake happens. Consider the New Yorker article your personal kick-in-the-pants to take steps to be ready.

Public Health's Preparedness Section and Public Health Reserve Corps practice setting up a medical facility in case of a catastrophic emergency.
Public Health’s Preparedness Section and Public Health Reserve Corps practice setting up a medical facility in case of a catastrophic emergency.

So here’s our part

When the Really Big One hits, we know that Public Health will be among the essential
services needed by the people of King County. Here are just a few of the things our Preparedness Section is working on:

  • Surge support for hospitals. The healthcare system will sustain damages in a major earthquake, just when people will be in dire need of medical services. We’re prepared to help take some of the load off of hospitals by setting up stations for first aid, triage, and transport, as well as additional medical treatment centers, with staffing from our Public Health Reserve Corps.
  • Promoting resilience within our communities. Plenty of people have a hard time making ends meet under ordinary circumstances; if you lack transportation, have difficulty accessing information, or have few resources, the impact of an earthquake will be even greater. Community organizations who provide essential human services to these populations will be even more critical after an earthquake, so we assist community organizations with training and planning for emergencies.
  • Supporting emotional needs. We’ve developed plans with our colleagues at the Department of Community Human Services for how to triage for mental health and emotional trauma. We want to ensure that those people who need the support most after an earthquake have it.

So what can you do?

First, don’t get paralyzed by the scary scenario. There are many things you can do to improve your own outcomes in a catastrophic earthquake. Here are a few recommendations, beginning with the lowest commitment:

  •  Put a pair of shoes by your bed and have decent walking shoes stored at work. Easy, right? Many injuries from earthquakes happen because of broken glass and debris, so have something to protect your feet if an earthquake happens while you’re in bed. What if an earthquake happened during work hours and transportation shut down? You might need to walk home, so make sure to store a pair of shoes for that purpose at your workplace.
  • Make an emergency contact planPlan with your loved ones about how you’ll contact each other if local cell towers are overloaded and how you’ll meet up if there are major disruptions to roads and transportation.
  • Get to know your neighbors. It sounds like just a warm fuzzy expression, but this is serious advice. The communities that recover the most quickly are those with strong social connections. And the reality is that in a large scale earthquake, the damage will be so extensive that limited government resources will be quickly overwhelmed. Be ready to help each other: neighbors helping neighbors will make the biggest difference.
  • Prepare your home to stay standing. Houses built before 1980 weren’t required to have the house secured to the foundation. Anchoring the house to the foundation will greatly increase the odds that it will stay standing in a large earthquake. You can also spare damage and danger by securing heavy objects in your home, like the water heater and bookshelves, with simple and inexpensive supplies from the hardware store.

And if you have questions about the scenario in the New Yorker, local experts provided answers to many questions raised by the article on Reddit. Read their advice. Start your preparedness plan. It might help you sleep better.

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I am a risk communications specialist at Public Health - Seattle & King County.