STANWOOD — An alarm reverberated through classrooms Thursday morning at Port Susan Middle School in Stanwood.
“Earthquake!” a voice repeated over the intercom. “Expect shaking! Drop, cover, hold on! Protect yourself now!”
Sixth- and seventh-grade students in Daniel McCrumb’s classroom got out of their chairs and crouched under their desks.
“Make sure your head and neck and everything is under the table,” said McCrumb, a science teacher, “in case the roof started having debris come down.”
A few seconds later, the drill ended.
The children were among more than 1 million Washingtonians who participated Thursday in the world’s largest earthquake and tsunami drill, the “Great ShakeOut.” This year, the exercise looked different for the Stanwood-Camano School District, because all 13 of its schools are now equipped with an automated earthquake warning system, ShakeAlert. The alarms were triggered by a simulated activation of the system.
The Cascadia Subduction Zone could trigger a 9.0 megaquake known in the Pacific Northwest as “The Big One,” and it’s due any day.
The southern Whidbey Island fault is less known and less studied, and because it runs right through Snohomish County, experts believe it could cause damage as bad or worse for local residents. The fault zone cuts through Puget Sound in a diagonal line roughly from Port Townsend to southern Whidbey Island, then continues east to the Cascades.
Stanwood is at risk due to both faults.
Seventh-grader Karina Prakash, 12, said the drill was good practice.
“It was so sudden,” Prakash said, “You just have to listen for someone to tell you what to do before you take action. If it happens too quickly, you might not have enough time to duck under something.”
Prakash said she felt more relaxed about the threat of an earthquake after the drill.
ShakeAlert was created by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2006. Today, over 1,000 seismic monitors cover the West Coast. They are the first line of defense to detect quakes.
As soon as monitors sense the waves, they transmit the location and amount of shaking to a processing center. If the quake is above a certain magnitude, an alert is sent to residents in the shake zone in seconds.
Those alerts should get to people moments before the first wave hits, unless they are near the epicenter, said Gabriel Lotto, outreach manager for ShakeAlert.
Lotto encouraged people to be ready.
Most earthquake injuries in the U.S. are caused by non-structural things in buildings, Lotto said, such as light fixtures, furniture, ceiling tiles or wine bottles. Spending a small amount of money to secure things in a building has the potential to prevent injuries.
ShakeAlert has become more widespread in schools and public places. In the Stanwood-Camano School District, the warning system is plugged directly into the PA system, and that provides people with more warning ahead of time.
Video provided by Pacific Northwest Seismic Network / University of Washington
“There’s no person that gets an alert on their phone and calls a P.A. announcement,” Lotto said. “It’s all streamlined. If you have a human in the way, it really slows things down.”
Any school that wants to install the ShakeAlert alarm system should contact Lotto’s lab at the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, he said. Lotto said his lab hopes to eventually equip every school in the region with the warning system.
“If you have a fire alarm, then you should have an earthquake alarm,” he said.
Lotto said the alarm system could eventually be used in electronic warning signs on highways.
“The sign could say: ‘Earthquake coming, slow down, pull over,’” Lotto said. “You really don’t want to be driving on some bridges and structures during an earthquake. If we could warn people a few seconds in advance, it could potentially save lives.”
“People hear about a massive earthquake, and they think: ‘Well there’s nothing I can do about that. It’s just going to kill everyone,’” Lotto added. “That’s just fundamentally not true.”
Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @reporterellen