Surviving the ‘Really Big One’ by Linda Russell

Posted in Community, More Stories

Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
February 10, 2016

“…everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.” So said Kenneth Murphy, director of FEMA’s Region X in the July 20, 2015 edition of the New Yorker magazine article, “The Really Big One.”

According to the article’s author, Kathryn Schulz, “An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the Pacific Northwest. The question is not if but when.”

Fear-mongering? Hyperbole? We on Whidbey Island know that we live in an earthquake-prone area, but what does fear accomplish? I decided to be proactive and find out what we on the Island can do to prepare for the eventuality of a really big earthquake, so I made an appointment with Rusty Palmer, the Fire Chief for South Whidbey Island. Not surprisingly, he has studied earthquake survival and has plenty of advice for those of us who live on the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

Have plenty of fresh water in stock. ((photo by Les McCarthy))

A first aid kit will come in handy. (photo by Les McCarthy)

He emphasizes that, on Whidbey Island, we will be a low priority for emergency workers. Conventional wisdom suggests a three to four day’s supply of food, water, medicines and other necessary supplies. We, however, must prepare to be totally self-sufficient for three or more weeks. “You’ll be totally on your own,” Palmer advises, “so ask yourself what you’ll need in order to survive without any help from the outside world.”

What does that look like? Establish a place to collect necessities such as food and water. As for food, freeze dried food is good but canned foods that don’t require cooking are fine. A supply of beef jerky affords a quick way to get necessary protein. And don’t forget dog and/or cat food if you have a pet.

Have plenty of water—at least one gallon per person per day! A good first aid kit and any necessary medicines are a must. Flashlights, a battery-operated radio, extra batteries and a battery charger are crucial, as is a cell phone charger that is solar powered. Or plan to charge your phone from your car. A fire extinguisher is also a must. In addition, Palmer says it’s essential to have a “supply stash” in your car, as you may be forced to spend considerable time there!

Have a stash of cash; small bills are best. (photo by Les McCarthy)

Have a stash of cash; small bills are best. (photo by Les McCarthy))

Other items that should be in your survival kit include a loud whistle to signal for help, and something that never occurred to me—a large supply of cash ($500 to $1,000) in small bills. Remember, the electrical grid will be out, so cash will be the only means of purchasing anything from food to gas. Be sure to have blankets and long-sleeved clothing, too. For other suggestions, download the “Emergency Supply List” at

With your post-earthquake supplies in stock, look at ways to protect yourself before an earthquake. There are several things that you can do. Palmer suggests taking a survey of your home to determine potential hazards. He recommends securing heavy furniture to the wall with flexible straps and attaching mirrors and pictures to the walls with earthquake putty. As for me, I have a collection of decorative glass vases and bronzes and, for what it’s worth, I plan to attach them more firmly to their shelves with earthquake putty. This won’t help in the event of the New Yorker’s “Really Big One,” but I’ll feel better!

It’s also critical to secure your refrigerator, hot water heater and other appliances with straps screwed into wall studs to prevent them from falling and rupturing gas and electric connections. In addition, your hot water may become a valuable source of drinking water.


Have plenty of fresh water in stock. (photo by Les McCarthy)

Practice how to “Drop, Cover and Hold On” with your family. Identify a large, sturdy piece of furniture, such as a table or desk, to duck under as soon as the shaking begins. Cover your head and neck with your arms. Hold on to your “shelter” so you can move with the object until the shaking ends. If you don’t have a piece of sturdy furniture, identify an area where the walls will form a tripod over you. If you’re outdoors, move away from buildings that might fall and drop to your knees. If you’re in your car, stop as quickly as possible; it’s difficult to control a moving vehicle. Stay in your vehicle until the shaking stops.

Remember, quick reactions are of the essence! Palmer stresses that you’ll have just five to ten seconds from the first tremors until things start to fall, so seek cover immediately.

What to do after an earthquake? Once you’re sure the shaking has stopped, and if it’s safe, leave the building and move to open ground. Know how to turn off your propane and electric power and do it immediately. If you’re trapped, blow your whistle or pound on pipes—anything to attract attention.

Flashlights, lanterns and extra batteries are essential.

Flashlights, lanterns and extra batteries are essential. (photo by Les McCarthy)

Stay away from damaged areas, and render assistance to injured parties if you have training. Remember, aftershocks will continue so if you feel shaking, drop, cover and hold. Because of our location, Whidbey will most likely not experience a large tsunami, but be aware of the Tsunami Evacuation Route in your neighborhood.

Finally, if your home is no longer safe, text the word “SHELTER” plus your zip code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter.

We live in a beautiful place, a place shaped by landslides, flooding rivers, high tides and, yes, potential earthquakes. But, Whidbey Island is where I choose to live, so I’ll take prudent steps to safeguard myself, my loved ones and my home. And no amount of sensational journalism will convince me to leave.

For more information, log on to or email  Also, the government has an excellent publication, “How to Prepare for an Earthquake,” which you can pick up at any fire station. You can also get a copy of the magazine, “Living on Shaky Ground” by calling 707-826-6019.

Image at top:  Fill a bin with emergency supplies. Use or refill food and water every six months.   (photo by Les McCartney)

Linda Russell is a transplanted Texan who has lived happily on Whidbey Island for 15 years. In a previous life, she taught English, theater arts and creative writing. She enjoys bird watching, beach walking with her Schnauzer, entering “The Short Story Smash” and traveling.


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