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Shake It Up: Local Governments and Earthquake Preparedness


September 23, 2021  by  MRSC Insight
Category:  Emergency Management

Shake It Up: Local Governments and Earthquake Preparedness

The magnitude 2.3 earthquake that struck the Tri-Cities this past July as well as the 4.6 quake that was felt across Western Washington in July 2019 serve as timely reminders to state residents of how geologically active our region is. While these quakes were relatively small, history suggests stronger ones have regularly impacted the 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 it doesn’t mandate holding regular drills or “tabletop” exercises to run through them. Conducting these types of practice exercises on a regular basis, however, should be done by all local governments. 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.

Earthquake drills primarily focus on teaching people to drop to the ground, take cover under the closest table or desk, and hold on to something (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, which is taking place this year on October 21, 2021.This event occurs annually in mid-October and is part of International ShakeOut Day, 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.

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 their role during an emergency and may highlight areas for improvement or new vulnerabilities. While a full-scale emergency response drill may not be feasible, even taking the time to do a talk-through or “tabletop” exercise is helpful.

In 2016, FEMA carried out Cascadia Rising, a massive, multi-state disaster preparedness exercise simulating the response to a large earthquake (this exercise will be conducted again in 2022). The report found many areas for improvement in Washington, including the need for improved cooperation between jurisdictions. While the full report is available for viewing, here are some of the primary areas recommended for improvement:

  • There was inadequate coordination between departments and neighboring jurisdictions, which led to either a failure to respond or duplicated responses.
  • Prioritization of resources across departments and agencies was not pre-established in emergency plans.
  • Agencies lacked access to basic contact information for partners when computer systems were down.
  • Agencies did not have emergency communication capabilities, such as access to amateur radios and personnel trained to use them, to cover their needs when normal modes of communication were down.
  • Agencies has insufficiently detailed earthquake emergency response plans or lacked an earthquake-specific emergency response plan.
  • A lack of flexibility in emergency plans, especially for unforeseen circumstances, led to slower agency response times.
  • Public messaging options employees by agencies did not adequately communicate changing conditions or life-sustaining information.
  • Regional partners were confused by the 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 at home with enough supplies to last them at least two weeks. Also, you should 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 details on earthquake safety and response:

Many local governments also operate subscription-based text alert systems for communicating with the public about emergencies, such as Clallam County, Pierce County, Seattle, Spokane, and Yelm.

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, was 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 the new building.
  • Tokeland Tsunami Tower is 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 a Seattle-based engineering firm 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 suitable 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 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 in 2017 the Department recommended a 7-13 year timeline in which landlords must make seismic upgrades to URM buildings. In 2019, it presented funding options for URM retrofits. The Department was working with city leadership to draft a joint resolution to begin the process to develop and implement a mandatory URM upgrade program, but the path forward became uncertain due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting budget constraints.

Additional Resources

The Washington Great ShakeOut Drill will occur 10:21 AM on Thursday, October 21, 2021. Individuals and organization can register 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 MRSC Insight

MRSC Insight reflects the best writing of MRSC staff on timeless topics that impact staff and elected officials in Washington cities, counties, and special purpose districts.

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