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Pioneer Square Could Look Like Nepal When The Big One Hits

Most of us in Seattle aren't ready for The Big One.

Eric Holdeman, former director of the King County Office of Emergency Management, said we shouldn’t expect outsiders to swoop in and save us when a long-anticipated massive earthquake hits (and it will hit, we just don’t know when).

Seattle could be devastated, he said. Holdeman, who writes about emergency management at the Disaster Zone blog, said buildings built before 1970 are most at risk of collapse. That's a problem given that so much of Seattle was built before then. 

“Pioneer Square could look a lot like Nepal,” Holdeman told KUOW’s Ross Reynolds on The Record, referring to downtown Seattle’s oldest neighborhood.

Seattle has felt two big quakes in the last 40 years – a 6.7-magnitude quake in 1965 resulted in seven deaths. The 2001 Nisqually earthquake measured 6.8 on the moment magnitude scale, but no one died.

Since the 1965 quake, knowledge about fault lines in the Northwest has improved. We’ve learned about the Cascadia Subduction Zone in the ocean, which extends from British Columbia in Canada to Northern California. In 1992, we learned of the Seattle fault, which crosses Seattle near Interstate 90 and is part of a system of faults.

Improvements have been made, of course. The 1970s saw modern seismic building codes so that newer architecture could withstand a powerful earthquake. And the Alaskan Way Viaduct will soon be torn down; the Viaduct had sunk several inches after the 2001 earthquake.

Video simulation shows possible impact of quake on Alaskan Way Viaduct:

Despite these advances, Holdeman said most individual Seattleites aren't ready for a quake.

“People overestimate their capacity to survive a natural disaster,” he said.

The standard protocol of being prepared for 72 hours may be outdated, he said. Emergency management agencies in areas that have had big, regional disasters are now saying people should be ready for a week. Oregon has told its residents to be ready for two weeks.

But here, Holdeman said, “a lot of people are prepared to be on their own for two hours.”

Holdeman recommends having one gallon of water per person per day.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Damage to Highway 302 near Allyn, Washington, on the Kitsap Peninsula following the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.", "fid": "117358", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201505/Hwy302_after_the_Nisqually_earthquake.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Wikimedia Commons via USGS"}]]For a family of three, that’s 42 gallons.

Keep walking shoes and water in your car, because you may find yourself stranded in your car during a disaster. Be prepared to walk 30 to 40 hours to get home, he said.

“Start thinking about urban camping,” he said. “Think about being on your own for two weeks.”

Have a family communication plan – decide where you would meet them should disaster strike.

For Holdeman’s family, that’s a light post outside their home in case of a fire, and a church three miles away in case of a major natural disaster. 

This segment originally aired on April 29, 2015.