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How you can prepare yourself for the Big One

It's not alarmist to prepare for earthquakes, here's what you need to know

Downtown Bellingham, Wash., on Apr. 17, 2024. The building in the middle is one of many masonry buildings in Bellingham. // Photo by Ikumi Mashiko

In the next 50 years, there is a 15% to 40% probability that a devastating earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 will hit Bellingham, said Colin Amos, a professor of geology at Western Washington University. 

Several faults could lead to disastrous earthquakes in this region. A widely known fault is the Cascadia Subduction Zone. 

“The damage and tsunami will be like the ones in Japan in 2011 or Indonesia in 2004, or even worse,” Amos said.

According to Amos, Bellingham has faults that can produce crustal fault earthquakes. This is an earthquake that occurs underneath the city on a fault that breaks the surface.

“This is almost more worrisome because the damage that they produce is going to be much more localized but more intense,” Amos said. 

Because Bellingham is a relatively disaster-free area, people's disaster preparedness may be lacking. Aidan Lowe, a third-year student at Western Washington University, said he is not particularly worried or prepared for earthquakes because he does not believe any will occur very soon. He believes that if one ever did happen, the government, Red Cross, school and non-profit organizations would help him with his necessities.

According to a report by the Department of Natural Resources, the last known Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake happened on January 26, 1700. Researchers noted that a magnitude 8.0 to 9.0 earthquake occurs in Oregon and Washington about every 230 years. According to the United States Geological Survey, the last occurrence was about 325 years ago, meaning a major earthquake could occur at any time.

In an effort to mitigate the damage caused by possible earthquakes, the City of Bellingham requires structures built within the city to meet seismic code requirements, Liz Coogan, an Emergency Manager at the Office of Emergency Management, said in an email. However, Amos points out that seismic code is not a perfect system, citing examples of constructional failure in withstanding earthquakes in Taiwan and Turkey. 

Having said that, Amos mentioned that “Many citizens in Bellingham live in newer, hardened construction that tends to perform quite well in earthquakes.”

At the same time, he emphasized the importance of staying away from unreinforced masonry buildings in the event of an earthquake. “Those are not designed to withstand shaking,” he said.

As a part of the disaster mitigation plan, Bellingham encourages its citizens to be informed and engaged. One way to do so is to educate yourself by visiting their website about emergency preparedness. It suggests building a kit at home with enough supplies to last two weeks, which helps the community to stay safe after a disaster.

Residents can also prepare themselves by participating in the annual Great ShakeOut earthquake drills, which occur on the third Thursday of every October. According to the website, about one in six residents were registered in the 2023 Great Washington ShakeOut in Whatcom County. 

The Community Emergency Response Team is a local group aimed at educating citizens on how to prepare for potential disasters. CERT is a county-run organization of local volunteers who play essential roles in supporting professional first responders. According to Doug Bestle, a program manager at Whatcom CERT, approximately 60 people in Bellingham are involved in the program.

In an effort to share regular information on steps that citizens can take to be prepared for emergencies, the City’s Office of Emergency Management maintains regular communication with neighborhood associations in Bellingham. 

“We also receive various requests for informational presentations to neighborhood groups, churches and schools, and we are happy to work with them to share the information that they’re looking for,” Coogan said.

Ikumi Mashiko

Ikumi Mashiko (she/her) is a city news reporter this quarter at The Front. She is a junior exchange student from Japan. She enjoys swimming in open water, skiing and cooking. You can reach out to her at

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