Perspective Newsletter
Spring 2015
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Getting ready for the Big One

Earthquake safety tips

Like a lot of us, you probably read the July 20 article in New Yorker magazine that rattled nerves across the Northwest. It described sobering scenarios of destruction from a Cascadia subduction zone "megaquake" – a shaker and accompanying tsunami big enough to leave 2.5 million people without access to food or water, 1 million without shelter, and thousands injured or killed. The "Very Big One" it said, has about a 10% chance of happening within the next 50 years.

While local seismic experts were quick to dispute some of the article's language (including a statement that "everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast"), they don't quibble with the author's conclusion that our region is seriously underprepared for a significant quake that geologic history shows will likely revisit us at some point.

Six practical ways you can prepare

So short of posting a For Sale sign and fleeing to the flatlands of Wisconsin (or simply betting on the 90% chance the Very Big One won't happen anytime soon), what's an earthquake-smart Northwesterner to do? These tips are a good place to start, especially to prepare for a smaller, more likely earthquake, similar to the 2001 Nisqually temblor that many of us still remember.

  1. Consider buying earthquake insurance. Although PEMCO doesn't sell earthquake insurance, we can help you find coverage through insurers that specialize in earthquake policies. Call PEMCO Insurance Agency at 1-800-467-3626, ext.4007, or email us for coverage. Remember, standard homeowners policies sold in the United States typically don't cover most damage caused by earthquakes.
  2. Make sure your home is bolted to its foundation. While that's a requirement for newer construction, many homes older than 30 years may need retrofitting.
  3. Keep an  emergency kit of supplies to last three days. Why just three days? Realistically, that's about all most of us have room to store and can grab at a moment's notice. At a minimum, it should include food, water, blankets, prescription medicine, and some cash (if power is out, ATMs and credit card terminals won't work).
  4. Build a supply kit to use if your home is safe after a quake, but without utilities. Include an additional week's supply of nonperishable food, water purification supplies, and other essentials (think backcountry hiking trip, minus the tent). See the Red Cross's list of emergency supplies.
  5. Make an "earthquake sweep" through your house:
    • Kitchen. Install childproof latches on cupboard doors to keep them closed. In homes without small children, move cleaners and chemicals to lower shelves so they can't tumble out and spill.
    • Bedrooms. Scoot your bed away from the window and remove pictures hanging over the headboard. Keep a pair of sturdy shoes and a flashlight under the bed – both can help you safely navigate in the dark if fallen items are strewn around.
    • Living and family rooms. Apply safety film to sliding glass doors and picture windows. Add ledge barriers to display shelves and move heavy items to lower shelves. 
      Home office. Anchor file cabinets and bookshelves to the wall with sturdy straps. Ditto for display cases and grandfather clocks.
    • Garage, basement, or utility room. Post signs showing where and how to shut off utilities, like natural gas, and make sure you have the tools needed to do the job (a special wrench, for example). Strap your water heater to the wall.
  6. Create a family disaster plan. Know safe spots in every room (under desks, against inside walls) where you can take refuge if the shaking starts. Also, agree on a place where your family will reunite if separated, and choose an out-of-state friend whom family members can call after an earthquake to report they're OK.