Parents should plan for a coming earthquake and do their best to make sure that they and their children know what to do when and if the big one hits Whatcom County.
That’s the message local experts want to broadcast as emphatically as possible.
The entire region would face unprecedented challenges in a worst-case earthquake. Whatcom County families need to expect to be self-sufficient for days, or even weeks, in a situation in which police, firefighters and hospitals are likely to be overwhelmed.
“It’s important for families to have a clear expectation that they are the first-responders in a regional disaster,” said Jonah Stinson, director of school safety and emergency management for the Bellingham school district.
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They need you to sound competent. They are incredibly vulnerable and they can’t make these big decisions.
Rebekah Paci-Green, director of the Resilience Institute at Western Washington University, on family earthquake preparations
Part of the challenge is uncertainty.
“It’s hard for us to know what’s going to be intact and what’s not,” Stinson said “There would be a lot of transportation issues. … There will likely be communications challenges.”
Risk of megaquake
This county, like the rest of the western part of Washington and Oregon, is on shaky ground. Besides the danger from moderate-sized quakes that could be triggered by fault lines known and unknown, we also live with the risk of an eventual megaquake along what geologists call the Cascadia Subduction Zone.
The last megaquake in the subduction zone occurred in 1700, and scientists who study the deep movements of the plates in this area have warned that we may be due for another one. It could happen this year, next year or 100 years from now. There’s no way to know for sure.
If the big one hits during school hours, most parents’ first reaction might be to rush to the schools. Stinson hopes most people will be able to resist that urge.
Parents will need to sit tight in those anxious first few minutes and wait for instructions that could come from a variety of sources, depending on what systems are available, Stinson said.
Local radio stations will be pressed into service to get information out to parents and others. If phone systems are intact, parents in some districts may get recorded messages from the district office. Emails and text messages also could be used.
Voice calling on cellphones likely will be impossible unless large numbers of people avoid the temptation to try to make phone calls that could quickly overwhelm the system’s capacity. Stinson said short text messages will probably be the best alternative. Avoid sending long messages and data-streaming.
No matter how the information gets out, Stinson said parents should be reassured that reuniting students and families will be a top priority, mostly because that is what students and families will want, but also because the schools are not fully prepared to keep students for long periods.
If buses can’t operate for some reason, the schools will have a plan in place to release students to parents at the school.
Building safety assessments
In the immediate aftermath of a big quake, Stinson said architects and engineers will be mobilized to assess the safety of schools and other public buildings. While schools could be pressed into service as emergency shelters as a last resort, Stinson said public school buildings are not officials’ first choice for that role. Unless school buildings are unsafe, school officials would hope to resume classes as quickly as possible, he added.
John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management, encouraged parents to be proactive.
The last thing parents want to do is go to the school. I can tell you that’s not the best thing to do. That can help create a problem.
John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management
He recommended that every parent ask for a copy of the emergency plan for the schools their children attend: The plans are required by state law, and every Whatcom County school has one. He urged parents to familiarize themselves and their children with their school’s plan.
Each school in the state has its own emergency response team consisting of at least three people.
The schools also are required to hold drills to test their plans. Gargett said it would be reasonable for any parent to ask how those drills went and whether the plans were changed afterward.
Parents asked to wait
By getting those questions answered, parents should be able to reassure themselves that teachers and other school staffers know what to do in an emergency and they do not need to rush to the school if a big quake or other emergency hits when class is in session.
“The last thing parents want to do is go to the school,” Gargett said. “I can tell you that’s not the best thing to do. That can help create a problem.”
Like Stinson, Gargett advised parents to expect to have to sit and wait for a while for instructions on what to do next.
Gargett said Ferndale’s school district is recognized as a statewide leader in emergency preparedness with a districtwide emergency plan that is updated annually.
While the worst-case earthquake would be a history-changing event for the Northwest, Gargett said he doesn’t think it would push Whatcom County back to the Stone Age. He has worked in the aftermath of catastrophes in Japan and Indonesia, and in both cases, some systems survived the carnage and could be used for communications.
Home safety important
Rebekah Paci-Green, director of the Resilience Institute at Western Washington University, has studied disaster preparedness and disaster response at catastrophes around the world. She said many families need to do more to make their homes safe in a major quake.
Homes built after the 1970s are probably safe in a major quake, but older homes should get an assessment from a structural expert. Many older homes need to be fastened securely to their foundations, Paci-Green said.
Small children face extra danger from tipping furniture and falling objects. Tall cabinets and refrigerators should be anchored to walls, and cabinet doors should be latched to keep glassware and other menaces from tumbling to the floor.
In her own home, Paci-Green said everyone has a flashlight and a pair of shoes near their beds at all times.
Why the shoes? Paci-Green’s research indicates that after a big quake in the middle of the night, many people suffer serious foot lacerations when they run around in the dark and step on broken glass.
Food for two weeks
Until last summer, emergency officials had advised families in the region to keep a three-day emergency food supply. But after the June 2016 Cascadia Rising earthquake exercise, Paci-Green said participants realized that this could be woefully inadequate. The new recommendation: Be prepared to feed yourselves for two weeks.
That is mind-boggling and requires some serious planning.
Paci-Green said parents need to prepare kids for this scary scenario without creating too much terror and anxiety. Stress that the family and the school have taken steps to keep everyone as safe as possible if the worst happens.
“They need you to sound competent,” she said. “They are incredibly vulnerable and they can’t make these big decisions.”
Like Gargett, she urged parents to familiarize themselves with their schools’ emergency plans and to speak up to make sure local school administrators are making that plan a priority. Parents should ask when the next drill is scheduled and volunteer to participate, she said.
What your child should know
Here are recommendations for what parents should say and do to keep kids safe, from Rebekah Paci-Green, director of the Resilience Institute at Western Washington University. Paci-Green has studied disaster preparedness and disaster response at catastrophes around the world.
Younger students and pre-schoolers
- Give them a card with emergency contact information and make sure they carry it.
- Train them to hit the floor, roll up into a ball and cover their head – under a solid table, if possible.
- Tell kids to wait for help instead of roaming around after the quake: “You’re not going to come and find me. I’m going to find you.”
- Make sure they know how to use your home’s fire extinguishers. You don’t have any? Why not?
- Make sure they have contact information for a friend or relative who lives outside the region. In an emergency, it may be easier to call or text that person than to make a local call. That out-of-region contact may then be able to relay information back to you.