Fifty years ago, this week, the largest earthquake ever measured in the United States occurred in Prince William Sound, just 70 miles east of Anchorage, Alaska. The 131 people who died included 16 in Oregon and California.

The effects of the magnitude 9.2 event were felt for months afterward as the planet smoothed out its ruffled plates and mountains. The waves generated by the tsunami that resulted from the seismic shift were felt as far away as Hawaii and Chile.  Research showed that in the time that followed,  water levels rose and fell within major river systems of the U.S. after being rattled by the quake.

I remember my mother telling our family that she felt an aftershock of that powerful quake.  On that March evening in 1964, in Eastern Washington — more than 1,600 miles southeast of the epicenter, she stepped into her tiled bathroom to brush her teeth. There was a jolt and a long shake. As a girl from the Midwest, she had never experienced an earthquake before. She worried for her sanity before she heard the same story from neighbors.

In geologic time, 50 years is nothing. But in human years, it is a very long time — long enough to forget to how such a devastating event can set back a city or a nation for years. The people in Japan are still reeling from the impact of a magnitude 7.3 earthquake and tsunami three years ago — also this month. Distracted by our lives, most of us have probably forgotten.

Here in the Puget Sound region, we have a new, albeit much smaller but intensely acute event, that reminds us how powerful nature can be. The landslide and flood in Arlington last weekend was sudden and lethal. There is nothing anyone directly within its path could have done differently. The risk to those down river escalated quickly. Injured or not, those nearby had to get out right away­ — even before help arrived — knowing that they may not ever return.

Emergency experts tell us that in the event of a disaster, we have to be prepared to go it alone for a time.

The lesson? Get organized. Talk to neighbors. Gather supplies. Keep boots handy.


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