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Shake It Up: Local Governments and Earthquake Preparedness


September 23, 2019 by Nina Forbes
Category: Emergency Management

Shake It Up: Local Governments and Earthquake Preparedness

The magnitude 4.6 earthquake felt across Western Washington in early July served as a timely reminder to area residents of how geologically active our region is. While July’s quake was relatively small, history suggests stronger ones have regularly impacted this region.

The prospect of preparing for such a quake may seem daunting, so here are some concrete strategies that local governments in Washington can take to prepare.

Practice, Practice, Practice: The Great ShakeOut and Other Earthquake Drills

RCW 38.52.070 requires local governments in Washington to have adopted Emergency Preparedness Plans, but how many of you conduct regular drills or “tabletop” exercises to run through them? Practicing not only how to behave during an earthquake, but also how to manage the situation after an earthquake is crucial. The earthquake itself may only last a matter of seconds or minutes, but it may take weeks, months, or even years for a community to fully recover.

During an Earthquake

Earthquake drills primarily focus on teaching people to drop to the ground, take cover under the closest table or desk, and hold onto the table so it doesn’t shake away (Drop, Cover, Hold On). Even though these instructions are simple, practicing what to do the moment an earthquake strikes increases the likelihood that people will remember what to do and how to do it quickly.

A convenient opportunity to hold an earthquake drill is during the Great Washington ShakeOut. This event occurs annually in mid-October and is part of International ShakeOut Day, which is partially sponsored by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the US Geological Survey (USGS).  Participating in the Great ShakeOut is a great way to ensure that your employees know what to do if an earthquake strikes, and it sets an example for the community. Local governments should coordinate with and encourage local businesses, churches, schools, and other community groups to participate in the annual Great ShakeOut Drill.

The Great Washington ShakeOut Local Government resource page provides ample information for local governments to use when planning their drill, including the following materials regarding facilitating a drill and increasing drill participation and outreach:

Whether or not your community decides to participate in the Great ShakeOut Drill, you should consider scheduling regular, smaller drills throughout the year.

After an Earthquake and Lessons from “Cascadia Rising”

Periodic drills can also help local governments practice what to do in the aftermath of an earthquake. Walking through the basic steps of your jurisdiction’s emergency plan will ensure that everyone knows what their role is during an emergency and may highlight areas for improvement. While a full-scale emergency response drill may not be feasible, even taking the time to do a talk-through or “tabletop” exercise would be helpful.

In 2016, FEMA carried out Cascadia Rising, a massive multi-state disaster preparedness exercise simulating the response to a large earthquake. The report found many areas for improvement in Washington, including the need for greatly enhanced cooperation between jurisdictions. While the full report is available for viewing, here are some of the primary areas recommended for improvement:

  • Inadequate coordination between departments and neighboring jurisdictions led to either a failure to respond or to duplicated responses.
  • Prioritization of resources across departments was not pre-established in emergency plans.
  • Lack of access to basic contact information for partner agencies when computer systems were down.
  • Lack of emergency communication capabilities, such as amateur radios and personnel trained to use them, to deal with a scenario in which normal modes of communication were down.
  • Insufficiently detailed earthquake emergency response plans or lack of an earthquake-specific emergency response plan.
  • Lack of flexibility in emergency plans, especially for unforeseen circumstances, led to slower response times.
  • Public messaging did not adequately communicate changing conditions or life-sustaining information.
  • Confusion from regional partners on Tribal disaster declaration process and associated roles and responsibilities.

Citizen Resources

While there are many general earthquake safety resources available across the web, having a city- or county-based webpage dedicated to earthquake and tsunami response will provide citizens with crucial information specific to your jurisdiction.

The Washington Military Department - Emergency Management Division’s current recommendation is that all Washington residents have an emergency kit with enough supplies to last them at least two weeks, updating the old advice of a 3-day supply. Please make sure your jurisdiction’s emergency planning materials are up to date. Also consider having similar emergency supplies available at your municipal offices in case an earthquake strikes during the workday and employees are unable to return home.

Here are some examples of city and county websites that provide plenty of detail regarding earthquake safety and response:

Post-Earthquake Tsunami Safety             

Coastal Washington is at risk for significant damage from a tsunami following a large seismic event on the Cascadia subduction zone. While all coastal jurisdictions are aware of this danger, some have decided to take additional steps towards preparing their communities, including the following examples:

  • Ocosta Elementary School, located in Westport, WA, is the first public building in the United States designed to withstand a magnitude 9 earthquake and serve as a public refuge for a tsunami. Voters approved a $13.8 million bond to replace their existing elementary school with a new building that could withstand an earthquake and ensuing tsunami.
  • Tokeland Tsunami Tower is a spec design of a tsunami tower that provides safety for 400+ people in the event of a tsunami in Tokeland, WA. The Shoalwater Bay Tribe has partnered with Seattle-based Degenkolb Engineers and FEMA on the project.

What to Do About Unreinforced Masonry Buildings

Collapsing buildings and falling objects are the main causes of injuries and fatalities during earthquakes, so ensuring buildings are as safe as possible is a good first line of defense. Unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs) have walls made of masonry (brick, concrete block, stone, etc.) without any embedded steel bars to reinforce their structural integrity. They present a great safety risk during earthquakes because the masonry can crumble, even with milder levels of shaking, falling either into buildings or falling outwards onto the street.

This interactive map shows all URMs, suspected URMs, and reinforced URMs across Washington. Local governments should take note of the URMs in their districts and work with building owners to create plans for retrofitting these structures. While this effort is undoubtedly important, it is also time consuming and funding can be difficult to locate. The City of Seattle’s Department of Construction & Inspections has done extensive work in this area; A confirmed list of URM buildings is available online and the Department has recommended a 7-13 year timeline in which landlords must make seismic upgrades to URM buildings and has presented funding options for URM retrofits. These recommendations have not been codified yet and are still in progress.

Additional Resources

The Washington Great ShakeOut Drill will occur at 10:17 AM on Thursday, October 17, 2019. You can register here to participate.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Nina Forbes

Nina Forbes was a Public Policy Intern with MRSC during the summer of 2019. She will graduate with her Master’s of Public Administration (MPA) from the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy & Governance in 2020 with an emphasis in policy analysis and evaluation.

Prior to working at MRSC, Nina worked as a graduate research assistant at the University of Washington and as a research associate at a Seattle-based private equity firm focused on impact investing. Originally from Colorado, she fell in love with Washington while getting her BA in International Political Economy from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.

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