Driving Through Disaster

Seattle, WA, March 4, 2001 -- A sports car lies crushed by earthquake debris in a Seattle parking lot. FEMA News Photo by Kevin Galvin

Emergency managers all along the west coast have been preparing for “Cascadia Rising”, an ominously titled earthquake and tsunami exercise that will take place this June. This national-level exercise is based on a 9.0 earthquake, an event that happens in this region about every 200 to 500 years. (The last one was 300 years ago.)

All this earthquake planning got me thinking about driving during an earthquake. The average adult spends about an hour and a half driving every day, and we only have to look around at all the other drivers on the road to realize that when we have an earthquake, some of us are going to experience it in our cars. Let’s consider what that might be like, and how best to respond.

Depending on the severity of an earthquake, the driver experience ranges from “Earthquake? What earthquake?” to a sensation of driving on four flat tires. In a major earthquake drivers will have reduced vehicle control. (That might be the understatement of the day.) Less control and the potential for road damage are both good reasons to pull off the road and park the car. If you can, stop your car away from tall buildings, and definitely don’t park under a bridge or other structure that could collapse. Stay in your car until the ground stops moving, which could last several minutes in a severe earthquake.

Once parked, it’s time to gather some information, so turn on the radio and listen for an emergency broadcast. Unless you have a medical emergency that needs immediate attention, now is a lousy time to make phone calls. During disasters cell networks get overloaded, preventing calls from going through. If you want to let people know you’re okay, send a text or email. Text messages and email will queue up and get delivered as capacity becomes available. A text also takes up less bandwidth than a phone call.

Our region has many infrastructure components that could become unsafe or impassible after an earthquake. Bridges, overpasses, fallen power lines, roads along steep hillsides or avalanche chutes; the potential for disruption of transportation routes is huge. Whatcom County Public Works alone is responsible for 160 bridges. It might be a while before you can get anywhere, so you’ll either be really glad you packed your emergency kit or remembering the guy you ignored from the newspaper article that suggested you pack an emergency kit.

You can build an emergency kit that provides all the comforts of home, but at the minimum I’d recommend first aid supplies, bottled water, some high-calorie food with a long shelf-life, and an emergency blanket. From there, adapt to suit your needs. If you travel with kids, add some stuff that provides them comfort during a stressful incident. If you depend on prescription medications, include those too. For more information about emergency kits, take a look at WhatcomReady.org, a great local emergency preparedness resource.

At some point you’ll probably want to get to your original destination, or, if that’s not an option, somewhere more comfortable than your car. Before you start driving, listen to the radio for reports that assess the condition of your route, and visually confirm their accuracy. If the roads look drivable, proceed with caution. During an earthquake there is a phenomenon called liquefaction, which temporarily turns the soil to soup. This can result in chunks of the roadway sinking into the ground. Much of northwest Washington’s geology is susceptible to liquefaction, leading to a high probability of road damage. Not like the disaster movie “2012”, but still dangerous.

The primary goal of driving is to get safely to our destination; achieving that during an earthquake will take additional preparation and caution, so as always, drive wise.

You can find more information about Cascadia Rising and emergency preparedness at WhatcomReady.org.


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