Moving towards ‘prepared’, not ‘scared’

This image is from the “Without Warning” comic by Dark Horse Comics. It’s a story about an earthquake and tsunami in the Pacific Northwest and was written to inform and spark conversations. Clicking on the image will download the PDF version of the comic.

It’s an exciting time for geologists in Washington state (and everywhere, probably). The two stories in The New Yorker on July 20 (The Really Big One) and on July 28 (How to Stay Safe When the Big One Comes) have sparked an animated conversation about the geologic hazards of our beautiful state and propelled a topic near and dear to our hearts into the media spotlight. People in many communities throughout the state have been asking questions about their safety, about what will actually happen, about what people are doing about it.

It’s about time.

Often, as geologists, our work is not considered media worthy and people generally seem to ignore what we say. It’s easy to understand. Geological time is difficult to wrap our brains around. And really, what should we do as individuals, as a community, as a society, about a problem which by its very nature is difficult if not impossible to predict? As Kathyrn Schulz writes in her July 20 New Yorker article:

“The brevity of our lives breeds a kind of temporal parochialism—an ignorance of or an indifference to those planetary gears which turn more slowly than our own.”

Although there is truth to this statement, we are also better than this. We can unlearn this indifference to geological events. We can—and MUST—move beyond just being scared of an inevitable and damaging outcome and move towards lasting changes that protect our lives and our livelihoods.

The answer to what we should do, at all levels, is simple: EDUCATE, PREPARE, and MITIGATE.

Our motto here at the Washington Division of Geology and Earth Resources reflects this credo: “Prepared, not scared.”

The mission of the Division is to: “collect, develop, use, distribute, and preserve geologic information to promote the safety, health, and welfare of the citizens, protect the environment, and support the economy of Washington.”

ger_tsunamis_hazardzoneWhat this really means is facilitating earthquake and tsunami literacy for all of our citizens—from business owners, teachers, and policy makers to grade-school children, hospital staff, and our neighbors. When the earthquake happens (and it will), when the tsunami hits the shores (and it will), no one should be uncertain about what to do or where to go.

The first step is to learn what hazards you and those important to you actually face. A tsunami is not going to wipe out everything west of I-5, but it will be swift and unstoppable, and it will seriously damage many low-lying coastal areas. A large earthquake is not going to turn every single building west of I-5 to toast, but it will cause significant damage, and it will be difficult for a while after a large event.

EDUCATE. This is the first step in moving away from panic and towards a meaningful solution. Educate yourself in order to know if you should be concerned. Learn what hazards you and your family face at home, at work or school, and during your commute.

No one can exactly predict what questions you might need to answer, but some things to consider are:

  • Is your home/work/school on ground that is expected to liquefy during an earthquake? Is it on ground that will amplify ground shaking during an earthquake? Review its location on our Seismic Ground Response maps and read our page on how earthquakes cause damage.
  • Do you live or visit areas likely to experience a tsunami? The areas on the outer coast will probably be hardest hit by a tsunami, but any low-lying coastal area may be susceptible. Areas of highest concern have Tsunami Evacuation maps, but if you are near the ocean and feel a strong earthquake or are advised to evacuate, seek higher ground or go inland. Learn about tsunamis on our Tsunami page.
  • What roads around your work might be unusable after an earthquake? Where will you go if you need medical attention? Select and earthquake scenario on our Seismic Hazard Scenario Catalog and see what damage is expected and where it will occur.
  • Do you live near an active fault? View our interactive map of active faults (or download the poster) and earthquakes. Learn about faults, earthquakes, and the damage they can cause on our Earthquakes and Faults page.

PREPARE. Even if your home, work place, and schools are perfectly equipped to withstand whatever hazards nature throws their way (and many of them are probably not), you must still prepare to face adverse conditions. No one can say for certain how long you will need to prepare to be on your own, and the length probably differs for different size earthquakes or other natural disasters.

For a “great” earthquake (M8.0 or larger) it might be prudent and reasonable to prepare for being on your own for up to 3 weeks. Smaller events might not need supplies for that length of time, and we can always hope that even the large events won’t either, but  drinking water and eating food seem like habits that are hard to break, and we should prepare to continue doing them during times of emergency.

Check out your local emergency management agencies and see what they recommend for your area. In Washington, there is also the state-level Emergency Management Division. Google is your friend here, if you cannot immediately find some good recommendations, brush off the keyboard and google something like “washington earthquake preparedness“.

Other things to consider:

  • Do you know how to shut off your gas and water supplies? Broken gas lines are the largest source of fires after earthquakes—ensure that you know how to turn it off.
  • How will you connect with your loved ones? Make a plan well ahead of time. Text first, talk second is advocated by the Safe America Foundation. Phone lines may be down and texting uses less bandwidth and allows more people to communicate.
  • Are you prepared to deal with adverse conditions for a significant length of time? No one can know for certain how long basic utilities such as electricity, water, sewer, internet, or phones may be down. Make a plan. Talk about it with your family. Get to know your neighbors. Check out the Prepare in a Year program that links individuals, families, neighbors, and communities together.
  • Do you have an emergency kit? It seems so simple, but most of us don’t have one. Make a kit for your home. Make a kit for your car. Make a kit for your work. Don’t let perfection stand in the way of making something, even if its incomplete. Food, water, and emergency supplies. Look to your local, county, or state emergency management agencies for lists on what to include.

MITIGATE. Mitigate means to lessen the effect of something. For earthquakes in Washington there are lots of small things we can do to help reduce the damage. The following is merely a set of suggestions, but might help get you thinking about what else to consider. Remember to educate yourself (see above) to know what your specific hazards might be.

  • Is your home properly secured to it’s foundation? In an earthquake the ground (and the foundation) can move considerably. If your house is not attached it might be moved completely off the foundation, or cause other significant damage. Consult a professional.
  • Is your water heater secured to something very sturdy, such as a wall or support beam? Toppling water heaters can wreak havoc in a house. They can break your water lines and drain your house of usable water at a time when water will be difficult to find. They can also break gas and (or) electric lines and start fires at a time when the fire department may find it difficult to help out.
  • Are your other appliances, book cases, mirrors, and large furniture items properly secured to avoid toppling in an earthquake? Broken glass and toppling heavy furniture or books are things no one wants to deal with.
  • Are you concerned about the ability of public and private infrastructure to withstand earthquakes? Roads, bridges, utility lines, schools, hospitals, water supplies, and many others may all be susceptible to earthquake damage. As Kathryn Schultz says in her July 28 New Yorker article:

“If you’re alarmed by seismic issues that exceed your own capacity to solve them, find the person who should be handling it and make some noise.”

This map shows areas of seismic risk from high (red) to low (grayish-green) and is from a 2007 report on the seismic design categories in Washington. Clicking on the map will take you to our Earthquakes and Faults page.

ger_hazards_faults_tile_240Moderate (M5–M6) to great (M8+) earthquakes are capable of causing damage to buildings and infrastructure. How much and what kind of damage depends a lot on the size and type of the earthquake, what kind of material the building was built on, and the specifics of the building design and preparation. Our Earthquakes and Faults page explains what faults and earthquakes are, how they cause damage, who is at risk, and what you can do about it.

This map shows areas where inundation modelling has been completed in Washington. The entire coastline of Washington may be at risk for tsunamis. Landslide-caused tsunamis can happen anywhere there are landslide hazards and lakes, rivers, or ocean. Clicking on the map will take you to our Tsunami page.


As shown on the map above, landslides are actually the most common cause of tsunamis in Washington. Earthquakes, however, are the most likely cause of major tsunamis, but not every earthquake will cause a tsunami. Our Tsunami page explains what a tsunami is and what causes them, how we can predict them, who is at risk, and how to prepare.

Do you visit or live on the Washington coast? You should know how to evacuate in case of a tsunami. Download, view, and share our Tsunami Evacuation brochures. They are available as individual PDF files on our Geologic Hazard Maps page, or you can search by address on our Geologic Information Portal.

Also check out our Tsunami Inundation maps. Many of these maps show the modeled inundation (water depth) and current speed for populated coastal areas. This modeling helps to inform the evacuation routes and is used by decision makers and planners.

Our collection of Geologic Hazard Maps contains the most up-to-date listing of geologic hazard maps in our state. Check them out to learn more about what hazards are in your neighborhood. The following list is a brief summary of some of the items available. The in-text links go to PDF versions of the data (if available) and the icons link to our interactive map version.

  • ger_portal_seismic_tile_240Seismic Hazards Scenario Catalog—an interactive collection of 20 earthquake scenarios on the Geologic Information Portal. Each scenario estimates damage and loss for that particular earthquake (the Cascadia subduction zone is included). You can cruise around the map and find your neighborhood or workplace to see, for example, what damage is likely, which hospitals may be affected, what bridges may be unusable, and how many injuries are expected.
  • Seismic Ground Response maps:ger_portal_hazards_tile_240
    • Liquefaction susceptibility maps—county-scale maps that show areas where water-saturated soil loses strength during earthquake shaking.
    • NEHRP Site Class maps—county-scale maps that show areas where soils amplify earthquake shaking.

ger_hazards_eq_CSZ_pubtTo learn even more about the earthquake and tsunami we expect from a large event on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, check out our publication titled: “Cascadia subduction zone earthquakes—A magnitude 9.0 earthquake scenario“. This work was developed jointly with the Cascadia Region Earthquake Workgroup.

You can also go to the Washington Geology Library (or the Google) and search for more publications (and there are plenty) about the fault and earthquake hazards, tsunami hazards, or any other kind of geological hazard you can think of.


Check out this amazing comic book developed as a joint project between Dark Horse Comics!, Cascadia Region Earthquake Workgroup, and Oregon Emergency Management. Get your kids to read it. Read it yourself. Start a conversation in your home about what to do just in case. Download the PDF, or view it out on your mobile device here.

You can also read and learn more by visiting: