By Steve Guntli
The threat of a massive earthquake devastating the west coast has been theorized for decades. Now, state, federal and local emergency management officials will run a simulation to see if we’re prepared for a worst-case scenario.
John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County sheriff’s division of emergency management, spoke before the Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce on April 21 to discuss the scenario.
Gargett, a longtime Birch Bay resident and former chamber president, worked in his current office back in the early ’80s, and was asked to step back in because of his years of experience studying earthquakes around the world. The simulation, called Cascadia Rising, is a detailed, multi-agency simulation meant to test the preparedness of emergency response workers all along the west coast, including Oregon and California. The simulation will take place from June 7–10.
Cascadia Rising will simulate a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, of equal magnitude to the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 and claimed 18,000 lives. Since Washington, Oregon, B.C. and parts of northern California sit along the 800-mile fault called the Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ), the region has always been at an elevated risk. FEMA calls an earthquake of that magnitude along the CSZ “the most complex disaster scenario that emergency management and public safety officials in the Pacific Northwest could face.”
Gargett’s office will be working with several state and national organizations for the simulation, including the National Guard and FEMA, as well as private businesses such as Phillips 66 and BP. Cascadia Rising will simulate approximately 400 occurrences in Whatcom County alone. Teams will be asked to respond to these events as if they were actually happening, and will be timed and graded on the efficiency of their response.
A 9.0 magnitude quake would have a devastating impact on the region, and the simulation will assume the worst-case scenario. According to the simulation parameters, the event will assume the CSZ would be fractured along its entire length and impact 140,000 square miles.
Ground shaking could last up to 5 minutes at a time, and numerous aftershocks, themselves potentially 7.0 magnitude or greater, would rock the coast intermittently for hours after. According to FEMA’s modeled estimates, 1,100 fatalities could arise from the earthquake alone, and an additional 13,000 fatalities from subsequent tsunamis, with a total of 24,000 injured.
Gargett said Whatcom County is in a relatively good position to weather a major tsunami, since Vancouver Island and the San Juan Islands act as shock absorbers between the ocean and the mainland. However, any coastal community will be at risk, and residents of those communities should have an exit strategy.
Gargett said a tsunami would likely strike Birch Bay as a “surge,” meaning the water will pull out before rushing back in again. Gargett said he expects a tsunami would raise the water level in Blaine and Birch Bay by about 15 feet.
Whatcom County residents could expect the county to be split along the Nooksack River, as most of the bridges in the county would not withstand a quake that size. Semiahmoo spit would be completely underwater. Blaine and Birch Bay have designated assembly areas that people should flock to in the event of a major tsunami.
In Birch Bay, the American Legion Hall at 4580 Legion Drive, Bay Horizon Park at 7506 Gemini Street and the Birch Bay Bible Community Church at 4460 Bay Road are designated assembly points. Blaine residents should head to Blaine High School at 1055 H Street.
Gargett said the best warning sign of a tsunami is an earthquake.
“If you feel an earthquake, your goal should be to get out of the tsunami zones as quickly as possible,” he said. “If there is in fact a tsunami inbound, you may have as much as a five-minute head start to get to safety.”
In addition, Phillips 66 donated new tsunami warning sirens for Birch Bay in 2015. Warning sirens are also in place on Sandy Point and Point Roberts.
According to FEMA, the CSZ produces a major 8.0–9.0 magnitude earthquake every 200-500 years. The last event of that size took place more than 300 years ago, in 1700.
“It could happen today or we could never see it in our lifetime,” Gargett said. “You just never can be sure. That’s why it’s best to be prepared.”
For more information, visit fema.gov/cascadia-rising-2016.