Kathryn Schulz wrote an article—called The Really Big One—explaining that a 700 mile long fault line called the Cascadia subduction zone lies just off the coast of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California and it’s due for an earthquake.

When that happens, geologists predict a massive tsunami will wash away much of the Pacific Coast.

The most frightening line from her piece was a quote from Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA’s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska. He says, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”

Much of Bellingham fits that description. Should we be concerned?

Earthquake Risk

The United States Geological Survey (USGS)—which maps earthquake risk to inform building codes, insurance rates, and public policy across the country—marks Whatcom County as moderately at risk for earthquake damage. The really big one would likely knock down some brick buildings, twist a few steel bridges, but—in Whatcom County at least—fall short of the total devastation predicted in locations to our south and west.

USGS Map of Earthquake Hazard

Tsunami Risk

The news is even better on the tsunami front. The city of Bellingham has only identified a few slim sections of coastal land at risk for flooding. In the event of an earthquake induced tsunami, only Zuanich Park, Marine Park, and parts the soon-to-be developed waterfront are at risk.

In greater Whatcom County, only the mouth of the Nooksack river appears at risk for flooding.

Neither location is heavily populated. So, breathe easy.

What should Bellingham Residents Do?

Schulz recently published a followup called How to Stay Safe When the Big One Comes to clarify and quell some of the most extreme fears.

She offers some very pragmatic advice about preparing for safety that includes keeping an emergency kit, bolting your home to its foundation, strapping down your water heater, and redecorating with an eye toward gravity.

Despite our close proximity to the Cascadia subduction zone, Bellingham carries much less risk for natural disasters than nearby Seattle or Portland. So much less, in fact, that the New York Times named Bellingham the 3rd lowest risk metro area in the nation.

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