Washington has some of the most mesmerizing landscapes. From its incredible green forests to its volcanic mountains topped with snow, to the valleys with lakes, and rivers that flow. It’s undeniably a majestic place!
All of this beauty reminds us of how the circle of life works. Even though the risk of natural disasters is generally high, the Evergreen State always springs back and returns to its enthralling sights in due time.
What natural disasters does Washington have?
Washington’s most common natural disasters include wildfires, floods, severe storms, landslides, earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, and volcanoes. Other less significant disasters include power outages, winter storms, and tornadoes.
Between 1953 and 2019, Washington declared 147 major disasters, of which floods and fires happened the most according to FEMA.
According to the US Geological Survey, flooding is the most destructive natural disaster in Washington. Severe floods occur at least once every 4 1/2 years. The main cause of floods is excessive amounts of precipitation and, depending on the season, rapid snowmelt due to heavy rainfall or periods of warm wind. The USGS claims that all of the major floods experienced in the state had two things in common: the duration and intensity of the rainfall.
Flooding in Washington is a unique event because the major floods show patterns of clustering by location and they tend to occur within a similar period of time. This happens because of the atmospheric rivers— these are narrow paths of low-lying water vapors that produce intense rain when moving into mountain ranges.
Some of the state’s worst floods in recent history occurred in 2006, 2007, and 2009. November 2006 became a record-breaking year for Washington in terms of precipitation. In a single week, some places experienced up to 38 inches of rain! This, of course, resulted in major flooding. The following year, in December 2007, a series of three storms brought in significant amounts of snow, which turned into large amounts of rain (the third storm). The snow melted quickly as a result and caused widespread flooding. This storm also produced over 2,000 landslides, one of which buried an entire home where a man was sleeping. Then in the second week of January 2009, heavy rainfall resulting in rapid snowmelt and saturating the soil. This caused major flooding, ice jams, mudslides, landslides, and avalanches in higher altitudes. Roads, homes, ski lifts, and many other structures were destroyed. The damage exceeded $72 million.
After reading this, I hope you realize the importance of being prepared for a flood! In this guide, you can find ways to mitigate flood damage, gain ideas for retrofitting your home, and learn what you should do during each phase of the disaster.
Washington state averages more than a thousand wildfires in a given year, of which the peak months are during the summer. According to the law, the fire season begins in mid-April and ends in mid-October. This allows the Department of Natural Resources to enforce certain regulations in order to prevent the number of wildfires from increasing.
One of the worst fires in the history of the state began on August 15, 2015. It was called the Okanogan Complex Fire because it was made up of five different fires that were started by lightning strikes in similar areas. These fires grew rapidly and containment became difficult, not just because of the mountainous terrain but also because of high winds. In the end, it took a little over a month for the fire to reach full containment. The fire burned approximately 305,000 acres, destroyed almost 200 structures, and caused 3 fatalities plus an unknown amount of injuries.
Preparing your self and your home for the risk of wildfires is vital if you’re living in Washington. The level of risk is high, especially during dryer months. In order to stay updated with wildfire news, you should follow the hashtag #WaWildfire on Twitter, as well as stay tuned to your local media outlets. Inciweb has information on developing fires, so that may be a good website where you can monitor what’s going on. Fires can spread quickly. If your home is under voluntary evacuation, gather your emergency kit and leave soon. If you’re under mandatory evacuation, leave immediately and go to an evacuation center. Don’t rely on local authorities to tell you that you need to leave. Sometimes the fire moves so fast that it doesn’t give them enough time— if you don't feel safe, evacuate! For more information on wildfire preparedness, check out this complete guide!
3. Severe Storms
Every year, the state of Washington experiences a variety of intense storms— putting aside heavy rainfall for a minute— these storms include wind storms, lightning, thunderstorms, and hail. Strong wind gusts are one of the likeliest events when it comes to severe storms in this region of the United States.
Severe thunderstorms are not too common in Washington state but they do occur on occasion when the air pressure and temperature are favorable for the formation of a storm.
One of the worst extratropical storms to ever hit Washington (and many other parts of the West coast) occurred on October 3, 1962. It was titled the Columbus Day Storm and it brought in heavy rain, record-high wind speeds, which resulted in mudslides, hundreds of injuries, and a minimum of 46 fatalities. The intensity of the storm also caused all-around catastrophic damage that was at least $230 million during the ‘60s— by comparison, that would be like $1.82 billion today.
Seattle, as well as other parts of the state, has bad wind storms every 15 years or so. These winds are known to cause long-term power outages as well as extensive damage to property, including the possibility of flooding. You can become prepared for these severe storms by stockpiling supplies such as food, water, first aid kit items, and anything else that you may need in order to survive a few days without outside assistance. Find some tips on severe storm preparedness on our guide!
The mountainous topography of Washington makes it one of the most landslide-prone regions in the country. According to Washington’s State Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Transportation has implemented a $15 million annual budget for the cleanup of highways and roads for this very reason. In Washington, you can expect hundreds, if not thousands, of landslides to occur each year!
One of the worst mudslides that the state has ever experienced happened on March 22, 2014. The initial report determined that the cause of the slide was heavy rainfall and soil saturation, however recent reports reveal that logging may also have had an effect. This mudslide, which was named the deadliest landslide in US history, buried 49 structures, destroyed a large portion of a road, killed 43 people, and injured several others.
If you live in a landslide-prone area, you need to learn the warning signs to prevent future damage or injury. You’ll want to inspect your property regularly for changes in the surface drainage, cracks in the foundation or walls of the home, as well as other notable changes. For a complete guide on landslide preparedness, check out this guide!
Earthquakes occur frequently in Washington— roughly 1,000 per year; luckily, the majority of them are too faint to be felt. That doesn’t mean, however, that damaging earthquakes are not a possibility. All the contrary. When compared to any of the other 50 US states, Washington places #2 as having a higher risk of earthquakes with the potential to cause massive destruction.
There are three major fault lines that run through the state. The Cascade Subduction Zone runs parallel to the Western coast and extends from California to Canada. This fault is capable of earthquakes with a magnitude as high as 9, and the shaking could last minutes. The shaking would not only radiate towards inland Washington but also cause a major tsunami. The Seattle Fault runs just South of Seattle. This fault has the potential of producing magnitude 7 earthquakes, as well as immense damage due to its proximity to highly populated cities. Scientists have not determined its timing interval, so the next shaker could technically happen at any time. Finally, the South Whidbey Island Fault, located near the Seattle Fault, also poses a major risk to Washingtonians as it has the potential to cause earthquakes as high as a 7.5 magnitude. An earthquake in that region could also cause tsunamis around the Puget Sound as well as inland flooding.
The 6.8M Nisqually earthquake of February 2011 has been the most damaging quake in recent times, causing an estimated damage between $1 and $4 billion as well as 400 injuries and 1 indirect death.
The entire state is vulnerable to feeling earthquakes, even cities as far as Spokane. As scientists continue to study current faults, they have consistently found new ones. I think it’s safe to say that the threat of a major quake haunts Washington, and therefore people should become prepared. Preparedness can include having a bug-out kit ready to go, in the event that the damage causes you to have to evacuate. You should also stockpile a few supplies at home, in case that the state-wide damage results in temporary road closures. Learn more about wildfire preparedness here!
Tsunamis are expected to occur in Washington. The main threat lies in the Cascadia Subduction Zone, located just off the coast of the state, however any seismic activity between Alaska to California stretch can bring in significant waves. As before mentioned, the Cascadia Subduction Zone can potentially cause a magnitude 9 quake, which would create huge tsunami waves. The other major fault lines within the state are not as close to the ocean, nor are they projected to produce a shake higher than a 7.5 magnitude, so they’re less of a worry. While they are expected to produce waves within Puget Sound and nearby regions, the main concern there would be flooding in low-lying areas especially in large cities like Seattle.
Washington hasn’t experienced a major tsunami since the last time that the Cascadia fault line shook. This occurred on January 26, 1700 and the tsunami waves made it all the way to Japan. There are many predictions on what size waves the next significant earthquake could produce, but of course, nothing will be certain until it actually happens. The Cascadia Subduction Zone is active so a quake, and consequently a tsunami, should be expected.
Preparing for a tsunami begins with developing an action plan. Tsunamis are fascinating to watch — especially the moment when the ocean recedes — but they come with a huge force that can be deadly. When you recognize the signs of large waves approaching, or the water receding rapidly, it’s your cue to get to higher ground immediately. Many people run towards the ocean to grab the fish that are suddenly exposed at the floor of the ocean, but that’s a huge mistake. Get to higher ground as soon as possible—you may only have seconds! Tsunami-prone areas typically have evacuation route signs or arrows. Pay attention to those signs anytime you go to the beach. For more tsunami preparedness safety and mitigation tips, take a look at our guide!
Seattle is stereotyped to be a very rainy city, so you may be surprised to hear that Washington is prone to droughts. Just like any other state, there are times when there’s too much precipitation and other times when there’s hardly any. Those periods without precipitation can last as little as a season or as much as several years.
In Washington’s history, the longest period of drought lasted 116 weeks and at one point almost 85% of the land was under extreme drought (D3). This does not mean that it didn’t rain at all during those years, but some areas experienced major crop and pasture losses and water restrictions had to be implemented. At this very moment (as I write this) 78% of Washington is abnormally dry. Perhaps when you read this article, that might have changed significantly. You can keep up with Washington’s current drought monitor here.
There are 5 main volcanoes in Washington state— Mount Adams, Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, Mount Rainier, and Mount St. Helens— and the two latter ones are a major threat to the state. These volcanoes are located in the upper part of the Cascade Region and they are all currently active.
The eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 was the last major eruption that Washington experienced. Mount St. Helens has erupted a couple of times since then but it was low-key by comparison.
According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), the organization who monitors volcano activity, the two most dangerous volcanoes in Washington are Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier, however, Glacier Peak and Mount Baker also pose a high risk. Any of these eruptions could cause volcanic mudflows, otherwise known as lahars, to rush down the streams and valleys, as well as ash, rocks, and toxic gases to reach populated areas.
Preparing for a volcano begins by understanding what your risk level is. The USGS heavily monitors the activity of each of these, so there may be some warning time before an eruption. However we should not rely entirely on that. When Mount St. Helens erupted, it took the state by surprise. As a result, over 200 homes were destroyed, hundreds of miles were damaged, and thousands of animals plus 57 people perished— that’s the most destruction caused by any U.S. volcano. Learn the warning signs and be prepared to evacuate or shelter in place, depending on what you determine is the best choice at the time of an eruption. Find more volcano tips here.
9. Winter Storms
The winter season varies in terms of climate and snowfall throughout the state of Washington. The eastern portion of the state tends to experience colder winters, while the western parts may see less snowfall and more rainfall. In the Cascade Mountains, there is a risk of avalanches, which on average claim the lives of almost 3 people each year.
Ice storms are also common in the wintertime. Freezing rain occurs when raindrops become ice upon contact with the ground or any other surface. They are extremely dangerous because they make the ground super slick and can cause road accidents, power outages, and other damages. Oftentimes, there will be road closures until the threat is minimized but it’s something to be aware of if you’re traveling or commuting during the winter. Learn some valuable winter safety tips here!
10. Power Outages
Any natural disaster can lead to power outages if electrical systems are disrupted or damaged. Depending on the severity of a storm, the electrical wires may not be able to get fixed for days, leaving you in the dark for what could be a very long time. A short power outage can be manageable in most cases, but consider the troubles that long-term outages can bring about. Some problems include faster food spoilage (the food in your fridge, anyway), and dealing with extreme temperatures, whether that’s hot or cold.
Always have a kit prepared with enough supplies that could help you survive a power outage for at least two weeks. Your kit should include water, a water purifier, food, a safe way to prepare the food, a toilet kit, a bug out bag, a first aid kit, and personal supplies that may be essential to you. If you have a generator, make sure to run it outdoors in an area with proper ventilation to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. To learn about the recommended power outage preparedness kit must-haves, check out our guide here!
Tornadoes are extremely rare in Washington but I had to mention them because the National Weather Service still reports an average of 2 to 3 tornadoes per year. These are generally categorized as an EF-1 or lower, but they are not completely off the radar. The most vulnerable part of the state is the eastern region.
The worst tornado to hit Washington occurred on April 5, 1972, in Vancouver (WA). This tornado was categorized as severe (F3) and it resulted in over 300 injuries, 6 fatalities, and significant structural damage.
Even though tornadoes are not the most common disaster, minimal risk is still present, especially if you live in the east.
Natural disaster resources for Washington
After reading all the potential threats the Evergreen State faces, you may be wondering what you can do to save yourself and mitigate the effects of a future natural disaster. Things can happen anywhere you go, and living in fear will be of no help to you. By becoming prepared for an emergency, you will gain the peace of mind that you need to live your best life now and act proactively when a disaster strikes. These resources should help you in your preparedness journey.
- Be sure to get the NOAA Weather App installed on your phone. This free app is a reliable way to get real-time information on developing storms and weather alerts.
- I put together several comprehensive guides where you can learn how to mitigate and prepare for the most common types of natural disasters. I’ve included free checklists that you can print and keep with your other important documents. Find all the guides here!
- Becoming prepared alongside your community is a vital way to get to know like-minded individuals while gaining knowledge that can benefit you during an emergency. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) is a government-based organization that provides free courses yearly. Get involved with your local CERT here!
- If you have services or are part of an organization that can provide assistance to those in need after a natural disaster occurs, you should get in touch with Washington’s VOAD— this stands for Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. This group organizes services and distributes tasks among the community as they are needed.
- Washington’s Emergency Management Division offers information and assistance to the public during natural disasters. Find their website here.
I hope you have gained insight into the natural hazards that are present in Washington state, as well as found the necessary resources to take the next steps towards becoming prepared.
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