Preparing for “The Big One”

Piece of paper with header that states Emergency Preparedness Checklist with hand holding pencil as if making writing

If you have listened to the news or opened a local paper recently, chances are that you are aware of the potential for a destructive earthquake in Washington State. The Cascadia Subduction Zone lies 250 miles off the coast of the western United States, and spans from British Columbia to California’s redwoods. Movement along the subduction zone has the potential to trigger an earthquake of 9.0 magnitude or higher. It is important that, as an older adult, you are able to recognize and address your unique needs before a disaster happens.

What is a subduction zone anyway?

Good question! A subduction zone is an area where the sea floor meets the continental shelf. In the case of Cascadia, denser oceanic crust is pushed beneath lighter continental crush. Due to the massive size of subduction zones, the collision of these two tectonic plates creates the largest earthquakes in the world. When the oceanic crust subducts beneath the continental shelf, the continent is violently forced to accommodate this shift. All the largest recorded earthquakes in recent memory have been caused by subduction zones, including Chile’s 1965 9.5M quake, and Japan’s recent 9.0M quake in 2011. In short, the subduction zone is the big bad wolf of plate tectonics.

That sounds intense. What can I expect after an earthquake that large?

First and foremost, it is important to understand that the services you normally rely on will be severely disrupted. From the pharmacy, to building management, to your doctor’s office, full recovery could take years. Planning in advance with your network will be key to personal recovery.

I’m already overwhelmed. Where do I start?

We understand that disaster planning can seem very overwhelming. Fortunately, we like to break it down into three simple steps and encourage you to plan for all disaster situations. I promise—we’re professionals.

Step 1—Build a Kit

Above everything else, building a disaster kit can seem like the most challenging aspect of personal preparedness. We get that. It can be expensive, it can be time consuming, and it can seem like a waste to have all that extra stuff collecting dust in your closet when you could be using that space for something else. We’ll let you in on a little secret. Most of us have almost everything we need for a disaster kit in our homes already! If you already have clothing, hygiene products, some sturdy shoes, and a flashlight and some extra batteries, you are halfway there!

However, we do recommend that you make sure that your disaster kit includes fourteen days’ worth of the following life safety essentials:

  1. Water. Easy enough, right? We recommend one gallon per person per day. If you have pets in the household, we recommend a few extra gallons for them, depending on their size. We encourage you to look up water storage options if you don’t feel you have the space to store that much water. Simple tricks, like draining a water heater, can make all the difference.
  2. Food. We all need to eat, right? After an earthquake, it will be no different. When choosing food, keep in mind that you are choosing food that is both non-perishable (i.e., does not need to be refrigerated and does not quickly expire) and nutritious. Keep in mind any dietary or health restrictions you may have. If you have high blood pressure, make sure you are purchasing food that is low in sodium. Also remember important dietary needs such as fiber.
  3. Warm Clothing and Sturdy Shoes. We bet you already have warm clothing and sturdy shoes at home, so you don’t need to go out and buy anything extra. Just make sure you know where a nice warm coat and a good pair of boots or tennis shoes are in your home so you can grab them quickly if you need to.
  4. Medications and Medical Equipment. This is a very important one. If you take a daily medication, especially if it is life-sustaining, it is crucial that you have back up medications. Similarly, if you use any kind of medical equipment such as a wheelchair, a walker, a CPAP machine, or have weekly dialysis appointments, we strongly advise that you develop a backup plan with your doctor. Your doctor will be able to help you through any insurance questions you may have. If you do not have a primary care physician, there are free clinics and urgent care clinics located across Seattle.

Step 2—Make a Plan

Having a disaster plan doesn’t mean you must write everything down and have it on hand. However, we do suggest that you write down names and phone numbers of emergency contacts and anyone important to you such as family, friends, or neighbors.

Always plan for the following situations:

  1. If you lose power
  2. If you must evacuate your home
  3. If you are unable to travel or move freely around the city
  4. If you are unable to communicate with family, friends, or neighbors
  5. If your property is damaged

Keep in mind that creating a communications plan is also vital. As stated before, write down the names and numbers of all your emergency contacts. If you can text, remember that text messages will go through when phone calls will not. If you do not know how to text, have a friend show you.

Step 3—Help Each Other

The biggest advantage you can have in disaster recovery is having a strong social network. A social network can consist of family members in the area, friends from church or community centers, or your neighbors in your building. The important part is that you establish relationships with those around you in advance so that you can rely on each other in an emergency.

If you don’t know your neighbors well, get to know them. Your block or building can request a Seattle Neighborhoods Actively Prepare (SNAP) presentation online so that your neighborhood can learn how to prepare as a team. We also encourage you to know the location of your nearest Community Emergency Hub. Community Emergency Hubs are places where neighbors meet to share information and resources following a disaster. You can find your nearest emergency hub by clicking here. Simply type in your address and you will be shown a map of the closest hubs in your neighborhood.

So, now what?

Go meet your neighbors! Buy an extra couple of cans of food while you’re at the grocery store. Talk to your doctor about an emergency medication plan. Make sure you have a communication plan set up with those you love. Preparedness takes some effort, but when the big one strikes, you will already be well on your way to recovery.

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Contributor Melanie Cole specializes in outreach and training with the Seattle Office of Emergency Management.

Originally appeared in AgeWise King County (September 2017)