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Rock Doc: Earthquake planning can prevent you from getting rattled

Mon., Nov. 19, 2012, midnight

What do the years 1872, 1936 and 2001 have in common? Those were years that Eastern Washington experienced earthquakes.

Let’s start with the most recent. In June 2001, an earthquake rattled Spokane. Many people felt it. Over the next 10 months, a series or “swarm” of modest to small quakes hit the city. The largest of the quakes was a 4.0. It wasn’t that the quakes were big, but that there were so many of them that impressed geologists. In short, they showed us that easternmost Washington isn’t asleep, seismically speaking.

The 1936 quake occurred near Walla Walla. It was a magnitude 6.1. Near the epicenter, a few buildings suffered partial to total collapse. There have been other quakes large enough to be felt in the Walla Walla region since the 1936 event.

The biggest quake that we know from historical accounts in our region is also the oldest. In 1872 a quake struck near Lake Chelan. It was felt from Montana to British Columbia to Oregon. There were no seismic measuring devices in the region at that time, but the quake was a big one as we can tell from extensive landslides it produced and a 27-foot high geyser it spawned. There were aftershocks from the event for the next two years.

Geologists can’t predict when the next earthquake will hit. It’s natural to wonder about that, and it lies at the heart of many questions people ask geologists when quakes are up for discussion. We can say that Western Washington is at a high to very high risk of major events, but we also know that central and Eastern Washington are not immune from possible earthquakes.

Recently I reviewed some information published by the federal government about what families can do to be better prepared for earthquakes. It’s most relevant to our friends and relations who live in Western Washington, but we can also learn from it.

Here are some basics:

• If you are outside when a quake hits, stay outside. If you are inside, don’t run outside while the shaking is happening – objects falling off buildings are one of the greatest hazards to life and limb during a quake.

• If you are inside when an earthquake starts, take cover under a table or desk if you can. Otherwise shelter in the inside corner of a room. Cover your head with your arms.

• We all will crave hard facts after a major quake. To keep abreast of what’s known, have a battery-powered or hand-crank radio on hand. Food and water – enough to last for 72 hours – are also basic.

• Each family is advised to have a contact person out of the region who can act as an information clearing house. Call that person and report where and how you are. As others do the same, you can most effectively learn where all your family members are.

There’s no time like the present to do some basic planning before an emergency arises, whether it’s from a quake or another type of emergency.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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