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Emergency Preparedness in the San Juan Islands

The wildfires that raged across the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 2020 were devastating for many communities in the region. Hurricanes and tornadoes often ravage other parts of the country frequently.

While these incidents are extremely unlikely to affect San Juan County, it is still imperative to prepare for natural disasters in the island community – earthquakes in particular.

“Disasters still occur here and on the continent. The question isn’t if, it’s when, ”said Susan Martin, vice president of the League of Voters of San Juans. “Summer, of course, ushers in the wildfire season. … Anyone who lived through the forest fires of last summer will remember how destructive they can be.

At its membership meeting on June 14, the LWV hosted Brendan Cowan and Bill Severson to talk about disaster preparedness. Cowan is the director of the San Juan County Emergency Management Department and was instrumental in the county’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Severson is the San Juan County Unit Leader for the American Red Cross.

“My goal with preparation is for everyone to understand that it doesn’t have to be complicated… You want to keep things as simple as possible,” said Cowan.

“Before too long, you will really be able to see measurable progress. “

The San Juan County Emergency Management Department has a new website,, in which it describes four “clear steps to preparedness.”

Step one: prepare to be alone for two weeks. While Cowan would like every islander to prepare for a month of isolation following an emergency event, he accepts that this is unlikely but still wishes the two week goal was met. Step two: Once your household is ready, extend your preparation to your quarters. A community that cares for its neighbors is both a lost art and an essential part of life in San Juan, the website notes.

“We think those are the two most important things,” Cowan said.

Third, once your home and neighborhood is ready for emergencies, the county suggests expanding activities to businesses and community organizations – nonprofits, volunteer groups, employers, and churches. And finally, plan your post-emergency response.

“I have always been impressed with how the islands have resisted over the past year and a half,” said Cowan, referring to the public health emergency created by the COVID pandemic. “If we’ve done a good enough job preparing for one of them, I think we’re in good enough shape to deal with whatever might come our way. “

The biggest threat to the islands, according to Cowan, are earthquakes and tsunamis.

“We are in a pretty good position when it comes to disasters here on the islands,” he added.

The good news about islands and earthquakes, Cowan explained, is that much of the land is bedrock, resulting in soil that is stronger, less shaking, and less susceptible to liquefaction. . Liquefaction occurs when saturated or partially saturated soil loses its strength due to shaking, essentially turning it from a solid to a liquid. Skagit Valley isn’t as lucky as we are in this regard, Cowan noted.

Most people in the Pacific Northwest are aware of the potential for a 9.0 earthquake caused by the Cascadia Subduction Zone off Vancouver Island to California.

“We’re a good distance from this rift,” said Cowan. “We are much better off than the people along the coast. … There are a lot of worst places to be in terms of an earthquake scenario. “

The bad news about being on the islands, Cowan continued, is that the local infrastructure is “very fragile.” Electricity, water and internet in the islands are all provided by a delicate delivery system which, in the event of a major emergency, could be disrupted and likely will not be fixed very quickly.

“When the earthquake hits, we won’t be at the top of the list for requests for help,” Cowan said, reiterating the need to be prepared and self-reliant.

Being a coastal community, with an earthquake, there is a threat of a tsunami.

“We won’t have a tsunami if we don’t feel the earthquake,” Cowan said. “We’re not going to watch a 60-foot wall of water come in and wash away the islands.”

But if an earthquake is felt, he continued, the islands would have about 30 to 45 minutes to pull away from shore. While many areas of the islands are high enough that they are not affected, there are low areas to watch out for, Cowan explained.

“We may not have a lot of waterfront infrastructure on the islands,” Cowan said.

While wildfires are a problem in eastern Washington, the western part of the state is less likely to be a problem. The mild temperatures and heavy rainfall the islands receive help protect them from the threat of large, fast-moving forest fires.

“Our fire departments are doing a great job and doing the best they can,” Cowan said. “We have the potential for high risk conditions. … We have a fair amount of poorly or totally unmanaged woodland in the county, which poses a serious risk if things go dry. “

House fires are the most common disaster on the islands, according to Severson. The Red Cross is helping people install smoke detectors and make their homes more fire resistant. The local branch of the humanitarian group organizes and mobilizes volunteers.

“These volunteers are trained in their particular area of ​​expertise and interest and they are trained and ready to respond not only to something that is going on here, but disasters in other areas as well,” said Severson. “There are opportunities for people to get involved.

For more information on the Red Cross, visit

If you have a party of two or more Islanders and would like Cowan to talk about preparing, contact them by calling 360-370-7612 or emailing [email protected]

“I’m always happy to be able to talk and discuss all of this,” Cowan said. “I find it fascinating and I hope you do too.”

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