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History provides reminder this is earthquake country

On April 13, 1949, a major earthquake hit Western Washington, killing eight people and seriously injuring many more.

One account at said the earthquake was a 7.1, shook the ground for 30 seconds and was felt over a 230,000-square-mile area. The official USGS report says the earthquake was a 6.7 with the epicenter at the Joint Base Lewis-McCord area and property damage in Olympia, Seattle and Tacoma estimated at $25 million, which is about $265.5 million in today’s dollars.

“This is a good reminder that we live in earthquake country and we should always be prepared,” said Geologic Hazards Supervisor Maximilian Dixon with the Washington Emergency Management Division. “We get hundreds of little earthquakes every month that can barely be felt. But we also get major earthquakes that can be devastating. In 1949, there was even a tsunami that hit the Tacoma area.”

Near Tacoma, a huge section of a 200-foot cliff toppled into Puget Sound three days after the earthquake that produced a tsunami that swept across Tacoma Narrows and reflected back to Tacoma, flooding a group of houses along the shoreline. South of Tacoma, railroad bridges were thrown out of alignment. A 23-ton cable saddle was thrown from the top of a Tacoma Narrows bridge tower, causing considerable damage.

In Centralia, alone, the earthquake damaged 40 percent of the homes and businesses. Ground water, released by the shaking, flooded several blocks of Puyallup. In Olympia, there was a lot of damage concentrated at the Port, which faced dangers of liquefaction and was built on artificial fill. The USGS report notes that almost all large buildings in Olympia were damaged to some extent, including eight structures on the Capitol grounds.

Several structures were condemned, including two schools and a church at Centralia; a junior high school at Auburn; and a library at Chehalis. School buildings in widely separated towns were damaged seriously. Water spouted from cracks that formed in the ground at Centralia, Longview and Seattle. One new spring developed on a farm. Downed chimneys and walls were reported from towns throughout the area.

“When I talk to people, the 1949 earthquake is not nearly as remembered as the earthquakes we’ve had in 1965 and 2001, and yet it’s probably the most damaging of the three,” Dixon said.

On April 29, 1965, another 6.7 earthquake hit the same region, killing seven people and causing about $12.5 million in property damage ($100.3 million in today’s dollars). The USGS impact statement notes, “In general, damage patterns repeated those observed in the April 1949 shock, although the 1949 event was more destructive. Buildings apparently damaged in 1949 often sustained additional damage in 1965. An example is the Alki Beach section of West Seattle, where almost every chimney was knocked down in 1965. Similar damage occurred there in the 1949 earthquake.”

Flash forward another 50 years, to Feb. 28, 2001 and the 6.8 Nisqually earthquake is probably fresher in people’s minds. The USGS Impact Statement notes about 400 people were injured with more than $2 billion in damage, but there were no deaths. FEMA provided about $66.7 million in aid.

So, got earthquakes on the mind?

  • Here’s what you can do now: Register for the Great Washington ShakeOut, slated for the third Thursday every October and practice your drop, cover and hold on skills. Most injuries are from falling debris and people walking on broken glass, Dixon notes.
  • Craft emergency kits for your family and get 2 Weeks Ready. We’ve got tips at
  • If that’s a lot to focus on, start with preparing water for your household. If we get a truly devastating earthquake, water will be in short supply so you’ll want to make sure you’re prepared early. Video tips here.
  • Learn about what you could do with seconds of warning that will be provided by the upcoming earthquake early warning system here