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What scares FEMA official about ‘Big One’: tsunamis, aftershocks

A 9.0-magnitude earthquake will eventually hit the Pacific Northwest. Officials can prepare for that. But it’s what is unknown that can be scary for officials, such as FEMA.

Ken Murphy, FEMA’s regional director, told KIRO Radio’s Jason Rantz that what scares him about “The Big One” are the two major unknowns: aftershocks and tsunamis.

“The tsunami: Will it happen?” Murphy said. “I don’t know (when), but science tells us it will. We don’t know how high the water’s going to be, we don’t know how fast the water is going to move toward the coastline. The other thing you don’t know is, when you have the earthquake happen, part of your coastline can either rise up or sink based on the earth’s movement. That scares me because there’s simply not enough time. Some of our coastal communities have some geography where you can get to higher elevation relatively quick. Others not.”

As for aftershocks, Murphy worries about how many will hit. It could be one, or it could be like Japan in 2011 when there were hundreds of aftershocks that lasted months after the big shake. It’s the secondary impacts of the shaking that can be debilitating.

“We as a community are trying to rebuild and we have an aftershock,” he said.

Check out MyNorthwest’s Earthquake Tracker

FEMA along with other agencies in Washington state are currently in the midst of the largest ever earthquake and tsunami drill — a stark reminder that the Big One can happen at any moment and that people need to be prepared. And it’s a terrifying prospect for Rantz, who ranks his biggest fear as alien abduction, followed by dying alone and an earthquake that happens out of nowhere.

Murphy says preparing for a mega-quake is tricky business, but that people can keep themselves relatively safe by following a few simple guidelines.

“I tell people we don’t know if it’s going to happen tomorrow or it could be a couple hundred years, but I think the important part is that these kinds of things are survivable,” he said. “I think we really will be in good shape and we’re going to need people to take … initiative personally and professionally because there will not be enough police, firefighters or anybody to come take care of everybody.”

FEMA’s easy tips to prepare

• Go under a desk or heavy piece of furniture, duck and cover to protect your head and neck from falling objects. Realize that the shaking can last up to five minutes
• Have a family plan of action
• Know your neighbors and have a safe gathering place
• Keep an emergency kit that includes a portable radio at home, in your car and at work.

Listen to Rantz’s full interview at 8 p.m. Wednesday.

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