Principal Tami Beach watches as students file outside as part of the ShakeOut drill.
Principal Tami Beach watches as students file outside as part of the ShakeOut drill.

John Hay Elementary students joined kids in schools all around the state for the Great Washington ShakeOut on Thursday, practicing what to do when a major earthquake hits.

Western Washington has the second-highest earthquake risk in the country, and being prepared for a large-scale seismic event is critical, said Maximilian Dixon, earthquake program manager for the Emergency Management Division of the Washington Military Department.

Seattle was hit by the 6.8-magnitude Nisqually earthquake on Feb. 28, 2001. Seattle Public Schools Facilities Communications Specialist Tom Redman said none of the district’s schools sustained structural damage, and city inspectors cleared them to remain open.

John Hay Elementary was constructed in 1989, and does not require the sort of seismic upgrades older schools in the district have received over the years.

This was the seventh year for the Great Washington Shakeout, the annual drill having started in California, Dixon said. The Washington Legislature passed a law last year requiring schools to perform an evacuation drill once a year.

Dixon said the state Department of Natural Resources is assessing 220 schools across the state to determine their level of risk in the event of a major earthquake. He’s seeking funding for an earthquake early warning coordinator, he said, and the Department of Commerce will ask the Legislature to fund a study of all unreinforced masonry buildings in Washington.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone is a megathrust fault stretching 621 miles, from Northern Vancouver Island to Cape Mendocino, California, and it last went off 318 years ago, Dixon said. There is an expectation that another great earthquake event will occur along the zone within this century.

“It’s not a matter of if,” Dixon said, “it’s a matter of when.”

An earthquake early warning system was rolled out for the West Coast on Wednesday, Oct. 17, but Dixon said only some utilities and businesses are piloting that ShakeAlert system within their facilities.

“We want to do it as quickly as possible,” he said, “but there are so many factors.”

Further testing will be needed before all 50 million-plus people living along the coast can expect to receive such an alert, Dixon said, which could provide them with a few seconds to react prior to an earthquake, and up to three minutes for Seattle if a Cascade Subduction event starts in northern California.

“That’s why we have to do a lot of training and outreach,” he said.

John Hay principal Tami Beach said students participate in drills every month, from earthquakes to school lockdowns, and it’s important that the proper response becomes a part of their muscle memory.

She said the school can exit its staff and 500 students in three minutes, and she welcomes a tool like ShakeAlert.

“I think the more information is always better,” Beach said.

Students were notified of the ShakeOut drill through the school’s PA system at 10:18 a.m. They then went under their desks and held onto it with one hand while covering their heads with the other. Their teachers then had them line up and file outside. The school was evacuated in three minutes and 12 seconds.