The Big One is coming – are you ready?

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Everyone knows that we live in earthquake country. Somewhere in western Washington there is a measurable earthquake almost every day. 

There are three historic sources for earthquakes – faults, stress between tectonic (continental) plates and volcanoes. We are arguably one of the few regions in the world which feature all three primal causes of earthquakes.

Many of us are critical of those who continue to live and build in flood zones even when they know how likely a flood might be in the foreseeable future.

We all know, at some level, that a large, if not massive earthquake is inevitable, but how prepared are most of us?

An emergency kit is easy to assemble and will serve us well in all manner of catastrophes.

Hurricanes have seasons, floods are more likely in low areas, but earthquakes can hit us anywhere and at any time.

Photo by Morf Morford
Photo by Morf Morford

And for most of us in the greater Puget Sound area, the earthquake itself is not the worst problem.

San Francisco was destroyed in 1906 not by the earthquake but by the fire that resulted from the broken gas lines that crisscrossed the city.

The greater Tacoma-Seattle area has a warren of pipelines carrying all manner of flammable if not explosive fuels.

We also have a problem those in San Francisco never could have imagined – in fact we have a threat few of us even considered a generation ago – lahars.

“Lahar” sounds like a foreign word because it is. It is of Indonesian origin and refers to a landslide of volcanic debris mixed with water down the side of a volcano, usually precipitated by heavy rainfall.

The Wikipedia page on lahars ( actually begins with a profile of a lahar from Mt. Rainier about 5600 years ago which sent a wall of mud 460 feet high down the White River canyon, and covered an area of over 130 square miles.

For better or worse, lahars are most likely to follow – if not fill – river valleys and low areas- like Puyallup and Orting.

The west side of Mount Rainier, source of the Puyallup River    Photo by Morf Morford
The west side of Mount Rainier, source of the Puyallup River
Photo by Morf Morford

Mt. Rainier might look placid – if not majestic – in the distance – and it is – most of the time.

Most of us think of Mt. Rainier as a dormant volcano – it isn’t. It is one of the most active on the planet.

Mt. Rainier is in fact a stratovolcano – the same type of volcano  as Krakatoa, Vesuvius, Mount Saint Helens and Mount Pinatubo.

For an objective overview of Mt. Rainier, check out the Wikipedia entry here –

As much as most of us love Mt. Rainier, it is on the short list of volcanoes most likely to erupt – and cause major damage – in the world. These volcanoes are called the “Decade volcanoes.” You can see more about them, if you dare, here –

The big earthquake here is likely to impact – if not find its cause – in one of our local  beautiful – if not terrifying – landmarks.

Most of our local, measurable and near-constant earthquakes are centered around our mountains – especially our active volcanoes – particularly Mt. St. Helens. To keep updated on these mountain centered tremors take a look at this website  –

If you want to monitor current tremors all along the west coast, here is a live, active website – For a focus on Washington and Oregon earthquakes, here is a more geographically specific website –

The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN) is sponsored by the University of Washington and the University of Oregon, and by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the U.S. Department of Energy, the State of Washington, and the State of Oregon.

To see how we compare to the rest of the world when it comes to earthquake activity, take a look at this continually updated USGS website –

The proverb that earthquake specialists live by is “Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings kill people.” Here in the Pacific Northwest, most of our buildings are relatively earthquake safe, but there is definite limit to how much stress any given building can take. When The Big One hits, it all depends where we are at any given crucial moment.

The University of Washington has studied a variety of possible earthquake scenarios, you can see them here  –

No matter where we find ourselves in an emergency, a survival kit (or two) is essential. As you look over the list below, you will notice that almost everything is good for any kind of disaster – or even minor scrape or injury.

I used to know a guy who kept all his important papers in his refrigerator – it is probably the safest place in your house in case of fire – and it is pretty easy to find after any major catastrophe.


Find a list of the essentials from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) here: :

First Aid Kit:

Store your first aid supplies in a tool box or fishing tackle box so they will be easy to carry and protected from water. Inspect your kit regularly and keep it freshly stocked. NOTE: Important medical information and most prescriptions can be stored in the refrigerator, which also provides excellent protection from fires.


Hydrogen peroxide to wash and disinfect wounds

Antibiotic ointment

Individually wrapped alcohol swabs

Aspirin and non-aspirin tablets

Prescriptions and any long-term medications (keep these current)

Diarrhea medicine

Eye drops


Bandage strips

Ace bandages

Rolled gauze

Cotton-tipped swabs

Adhesive tape roll

Other First Aid Supplies:

First aid book




Bar soap



Paper cups

Pocket knife

Small plastic bags

Safety pins

Needle and thread

Instant cold packs for sprains

Sanitary napkins

Splinting materials

Survival Kit for Your Home:

Assemble a survival kit for your home with the following items:

Tools and supplies

ax, shovel, broom

screwdriver, pliers, hammer, adjustable wrench

rope for towing or rescue

plastic sheeting and tape

Items for safety and comfort

sturdy shoes that can provide protection from broken glass, nails, and other debris

gloves (heavy and durable for cleaning up debris)


waterproof matches

change of clothing


garden hose (for siphoning and firefighting)


recreational supplies for children and adults

blankets or sleeping bags

portable radio, flashlight, and extra batteries

essential medications and eyeglasses

fire extinguisher — multipurpose, dry chemical type

food and water for pets

toilet tissue


Survival Kit for Your Automobile:

Assemble a survival kit for your automobile with the following items. Storing some of these supplies in a small bag or backpack will make them more convenient to carry if you need to walk.


Bottled water

Change of clothes

Coins for telephone calls

Fire extinguisher — multipurpose, dry chemical type

First aid kit and manual

Emergency signal device (light sticks, battery-type flasher, reflector, etc.)

Flashlight with fresh batteries

Food (nonperishable — nutrition bars, trail mix, etc.)


Local map and compass

Rope for towing, rescue, etc.

Paper and pencils

Premoistened towelettes

Prescription medicines

Battery-operated radio with fresh batteries

Small mirror for signaling

Toilet tissue

Tools (pliers, adjustable wrench, screwdriver, etc.)

Whistle for signaling

Jumper cables

Duct tape

Survival Kit for Your Workplace:

Assemble a survival kit for the workplace with the following supplies:

Food (nonperishable — nutrition bars, trail mix, etc.)

Bottled water

Jacket or sweatshirt

Pair of sturdy shoes

Flashlight with fresh batteries

Battery-operated radio with fresh batteries

Essential medications


Small first aid kit

Extra pair of eyeglasses and/or contact lens solution

Whistle or other signaling device



City Club of Tacoma has a preparedness event coming up Feb. 7th; more info can be found here.

And FEMA has some tsunami prep info you can find here.