Shake It Up: Local Governments and Earthquake Preparedness

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September 23, 2021
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MRSC Insight



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Emergency management


The magnitude 2.3 earthquake that hit the Tri-Cities last July as well as the 4.6 earthquake that was felt in western Washington in July 2019 are a timely reminder to residents of the state of what point our region is geologically active. Although these earthquakes were relatively weak, history suggests that stronger ones have regularly hit the area.

The prospect of preparing for such an earthquake can seem daunting, so here are some concrete strategies local governments in Washington can adopt to prepare.

Train, Train, Train: The Great ShakeOut and Other Earthquake Exercises

RCW 38.52.070 requires local governments in Washington to have emergency preparedness plans in place, but it does not require regular drills or “tabletop” exercises to perform them. Conducting these types of practical exercises on a regular basis, however, should be carried out by all local governments. Practicing not only how to behave during an earthquake, but also how to handle the situation after an earthquake, is crucial. The earthquake itself may last only a few seconds or minutes, but it can take weeks, months, or even years for a community to fully recover.

The main purpose of earthquake drills is to teach people how to publication date on the ground, take blanket under the nearest table or desk, and socket to of something (Drop, cover, hold on). Although these instructions are simple, practicing what to do when an earthquake occurs increases the likelihood that people will remember what to do and how to do it quickly.

The Great Washington ShakeOut, taking place this year on October 21, 2021, is a hands-on opportunity to host a seismic exercise. (FEMA) and the US Geological Survey (USGS).

Participating in the Great ShakeOut is a great way to make sure your employees know what to do in the event of an earthquake, and it sets an example for the community. Local governments should coordinate and encourage local businesses, churches, schools and other community groups to participate in the annual Great ShakeOut exercise.

The Great Washington ShakeOut Local Government resource page provides a wealth of information for local governments to use when planning their exercise, including the following materials regarding facilitating an exercise and increasing participation and awareness of the exercise. exercise :

Whether or not your community decides to participate in the Great ShakeOut exercise, you should consider planning regular, smaller exercises throughout the year.

Lessons from “Cascadia Rising”

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

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

  • Coordination between ministries and neighboring jurisdictions was inadequate, resulting in either no response or duplicate responses.
  • The prioritization of resources between departments and agencies was not pre-established in the emergency plans.
  • The agencies did not have access to the basic contact details of the partners when the IT systems were down.
  • Agencies lacked emergency communication capabilities, such as access to amateur radios and staff trained to use them, to cover their needs when normal modes of communication were down.
  • Agencies either have insufficiently detailed earthquake emergency response plans or do not have an earthquake-specific emergency response plan.
  • A lack of flexibility in contingency plans, especially for unforeseen circumstances, has resulted in slower response times from agencies.
  • Agency employee public messaging options did not adequately communicate changing conditions or vital information.
  • Regional partners have been confused by the tribal disaster declaration process and associated roles and responsibilities.

Citizen resources

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

The current recommendation of the Washington Military Department – Division of Emergency Management is that all Washington residents have an emergency kit at home with enough supplies for at least two weeks. In addition, you should consider having similar emergency supplies available at your municipal offices in case an earthquake occurs during the working day 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 text alert systems to communicate with the public about emergencies, such as Clallam County, Pierce County, Seattle, Spokane and Yelm.

Safety after the tsunami

The coast of Washington is at risk of being seriously damaged by a tsunami following a major seismic event on the Cascadia subduction zone. While all coastal jurisdictions are aware of this danger, some have decided to take additional steps to prepare their communities, including the following examples:

  • Ocosta Elementary School, located in Westport, Washington, was designed to withstand a magnitude 9 earthquake and serve as a public safe haven in the event of 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 over 400 people in the event of a tsunami in Tokeland, WA. The Shoalwater Bay Tribe has partnered with a Seattle-based engineering company and FEMA on the project.

What to do with unreinforced masonry buildings

Collapsing buildings and falling objects are the leading causes of injury and death in earthquakes, so making sure buildings are as safe as possible is a suitable first line of defense. Unreinforced Masonry (URM) buildings have masonry walls (brick, concrete block, stone, etc.) without any embedded steel bars to reinforce their structural integrity. They pose a great safety risk during earthquakes as masonry can collapse, even with lighter shaking levels, falling either into buildings or out onto the street.

This interactive map shows all URMs, suspected URMs, and fortified URMs across Washington. Local governments should take note of URMs in their neighborhoods and work with building owners to create plans for upgrading these structures. While this effort is undoubtedly important, it also takes time and funding can be difficult to find.

The City of Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections has done a lot of work in this area; A confirmed list of URM buildings is available online and in 2017, the ministry recommended a 7 to 13 year timeframe in which owners should make seismic improvements to URM buildings. In 2019, he presented funding options for the URM renovations. The department was working with city leaders to draft a joint resolution to begin the process of developing and implementing a mandatory URM upgrade program, but the way forward became uncertain due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting budget constraints.

Additional resources

The Washington Great ShakeOut Drill will take place at 10:21 am on Thursday, October 21, 2021. Individuals and organizations can register to participate.


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

About MRSC Insight

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

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