We who live and work in Bellingham and Whatcom County live along the Ring of Fire, which isn’t just a great song. There are faults all around the underground, which means that we could one day experience an earthquake and/or tsunami event. It’s likely that many drivers will be on the road if/when it hits, or roads will be impassable, so we will have to wait it out at home.

If an earthquake generates a tsunami, how long do we have before it hits? A recent Washington State Department of Natural Resources study determined that many Bellingham residents may have about 18 hours to evacuate from an earthquake that generates a tsunami, according to the Bellingham Herald. Are we ready to handle this? Last summer, emergency managers up and down the west coast conducted a disaster preparation test. Called “Cascadia Rising” the exercise tested our ability to manage a 9.0 earthquake, which is a very large and intense earthquake, along the lines of what triggered Japan’s Fukushima disaster. 9.0 level earthquakes happen about every 200-500 years. Our last one was about 300 years ago. So, if it hits, at least government officials are studying and practicing for what might come.

The upshot is we are now advised to have on hand enough emergency supplies to last us two weeks, which is about how long authorities believe it could take them to provide services. Bottled water, canned food, candles – check, check, check (among other necessities on the Department of Homeland Security’s official checklist).

But what will you do if you’re driving and the big quake quakes? The average adult spends about 90 minutes in the car each day. This means we have close to a 19 million drivers average on US roads at any given time. So yes, someone will be driving then, and very likely, someone you know.

If it’s you? Your experience of the quake will depend largely on the severity of the earthquake. You might not even notice it, as the shock of the movement in the ground would be absorbed by the car just like hitting a couple bumps in the road. But in a major quake, it may feel like you’re driving suddenly on four flat tires. If you have read my article about what to do if you get a flat, then you know how to be prepared to that. But all four? Same advice, initially. Pull over. This time, don’t stop around tall buildings, bridges, or other structures that could fall on you. Just stay in your car until the ground stops moving, which could be several minutes. 

Once you gather your senses again, it’s time to gather some information. Turn on the radio, which in Whatcom County is KGMI AM 790, or any other local broadcast. Avoid calling loved ones or calling anyone else unless you have a medical emergency. You need to free up cell networks for true emergencies. Text messages or emails are better, which will queue up and go through when capacity allows. 

Since we are surrounded by bridges, overpasses, power lines, roads like Chuckanut Drive, and avalanche chutes, there’s a high chance that roads are going to be impassable. Be sure to already have that emergency kit in your car in case you’re stuck there for awhile. Here’s a great list of what to have in your car just in case. Here’s another great site to check your list against, provided by the Whatcom Unified Emergency Management team, Whatcom Ready.

At some point you’ll need to drive onwards. Check the radio broadcast for major disaster areas and road closures. Drive defensively, and I mean not just with other drivers, but look out for trees and buildings that could fall on you.

No matter if you’re driving on a beautiful, clear day or Armageddon, drive safe, pay attention, and call Bill Coats Law if you are the victim of someone else’s negligence. 

For more: 

Tips on how to prepare for and survive an earthquake 

Rules of the Road: Tips for driving during and after a major earthquake


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