Washington National Guard prepares for earthquakes

Preparing for a 9.0

By J.M. Simpson on July 26, 2014

Earthquakes are Mother Nature's way of tapping us on the shoulder to let us know she is still in charge.

They are simple events, and earthquakes occur when two layers, or plates, of the Earth shift and run into each other. This action results in seismic waves and the shaking of the ground and potential tsunamis.

The National Earthquake Information Center estimates that about 25 earthquakes occur daily. 

The vast majority of earthquakes are small and uneventful.  Others, on the other hand, do generate worldwide notice.

The Puget Sound area of the Pacific Northwest is one geological area where Mother Nature will - sooner rather than later - authoritatively remind us of who is in charge.

In other words, we live dead center on a seismic target.

This bull's eye - an area where three tectonic plates creep toward a collision - is known as the Cascadia Subduction Zone, or CSZ.

This 750-mile-long collision between plates runs between 50 to 80 miles off and along the Pacific Coast from Northern California up to Southern British Columbia.

Seismologists estimate that a stuck plate breaking loose could cause an 8.0 or 9.0 magnitude earthquake, stronger than any ever recorded in the area.

"It's better to know what's coming than to be caught of guard," warns Sandi Doughton, Seattle Times science reporter, in her 2013 book, Full-Rip 9.0: The Next Big Earthquake.

"Without having suffered through a great earthquake in modern times, the Pacific Northwest has been granted the chance to get ready before the next one strikes."

That's right - one of Mother Nature's mega-quakes will strike the Pacific Northwest.

It is at the point that the ground stops shaking and the water has subsided that the Washington National Guard goes to work.

"We are responsible for the military's domestic support of civil authorities in the response for the state of Washington," said Lt. Col. Clayton Braun, the Washington Army National Guard's operations and plans officer for such an event.

"There is a lot to plan for."

In 1700 a mega quake of 9.0 ripped the length of the offshore fault where the seafloor and continent collide, unleashing a deadly tsunami.

It was 60 times greater than the earthquake that leveled San Francisco in 1906.

"A magnitude 9.0 CSZ earthquake has occurred every 300 to 500 years," Braun pointed out. "We're in the window for one, and it will be devastating."

When it does, life may be more akin to the 19th century than the 21st century.

Specific to Washington, the affected area will cover 19 counties, 24 Indian nations, 19 major cities and one major metropolitan area, Seattle.

The resultant tsunami will devastate coastal towns.

All electrical power, gas and water will be disrupted and may not be restored for months.

Landslides, avalanches, gas leaks, fires, flooding, hazardous materials releases, low level contamination, lack of food and water and disease complicate the problem.

A significant number of hospitals, fire stations, schools, correctional facilities, senior living facilities, and police agencies will be damaged or destroyed.

The state's Emergency Operations Center at Camp Murray was designed to survive such a catastrophe and is expected to be operational in coordinating emergency operations.

While ports, airports and railroads will be damaged or destroyed, they represent a start point for rescue and recovery.

"With over 5.3 million people living in the affected area, airports will definitely be a point where we can get resources in and begin to expand our footprint in providing aid," explained Braun.

Active duty components at Joint Base Lewis-McChord can be pressed into service should a 9.0 earthquake strike.

While there are a number of federal hoops to jump through - from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Department of Defense - JBLM may be of help to state officials.

"Our primary mission is to provide installation support to war fighters and their families," wrote Ed Wood, installation emergency manager.

"Assuming the capability still exists after the earthquake, it is possible that units could be tasked to provide support to the surrounding areas.  One key point of integration is that it is possible that JBLM will become a staging area for Guard-managed disaster response forces."

With the geologic knowledge of what lies ahead, preparation is vital.

"Having two weeks to a month of survival goods is a good plan," Braun said. 

"Recovery will take time."