Are Pharmacists Prepared for America's Worst Natural Disaster?

FEBRUARY 15, 2016
Meghan Ross, Senior Associate Editor
“When, not if” is a repeated phrase experts use when they refer to the Cascadia subduction zone rupture, which will create North America’s worst natural disaster in recent history.

The Cascadia fault line—which may be lesser known than the San Andreas Fault, but has the potential to produce more damage—runs from the area around Cape Mendocino, California, through Oregon and Washington, and ends near Vancouver Island, Canada.

Pharmacists should be aware of this fault line because there is a 1 in 3 chance that a big earthquake with a magnitude of 8 to 8.6 will occur in the Pacific Northwest within the next 50 years, The New Yorker reported. The odds of the next full-margin rupture (between an 8.7- and 9.2-magnitude earthquake) occurring in the next half-century are about 1 in 10.

When the full-margin rupture occurs, the Pacific Northwest will experience not only a massive earthquake, but also a tsunami roughly 15 minutes later.

One of the most-cited quotes from The New Yorker article on the Cascadia subduction zone came from Kenneth D. Murphy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regional administrator for Region X, who stated, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”

On its website, FEMA describes the Cascadia subduction zone earthquake and tsunami situation as “one of the most complex disaster scenarios that emergency management and public safety officials face in the Pacific Northwest.”

Every 200 to 500 years, on average, an 8- to 9-magnitude earthquake occurs along the 800-mile territory, according to FEMA. The last major earthquake and tsunami occurred in 1700.

If the earthquake and tsunami had hit on February 6, 2016, at 9:41 AM, around 13,000 individuals would have died and 27,000 would be injured, FEMA told The New Yorker. The agency is currently planning a 4-day exercise in June to coordinate governmental agencies with the private sector on responses to this emergency situation.

Awareness and preparation are crucial for those residing in the Pacific Northwest. Here’s how pharmacists located in states on the West Coast can help prepare themselves and their patients for this natural disaster, starting with Washington State.

Michael Loehr, chief of emergency preparedness and response for Washington State, told Pharmacy Times that local and state emergency managers have led efforts to educate the public, business community, government agencies, and elected leaders about the Cascadia subduction zone rupture.

While Loehr did not have details on what percentage of homes or structures have been built or retrofitted to withstand earthquakes, he did note that efforts are continuing to retrofit critical infrastructure, especially bridges.

He described pharmacists as key health care providers who can play an important role in helping patients prepare for this disaster.

“Pharmacists can encourage their patients to create a disaster supplies kit, have all prescriptions written down in a safe place so that the list can be taken with the person in the event they need to evacuate, encourage patients to have contact information for health care providers readily available, and ensure to the greatest extent possible that an extra supply of critical medications can be maintained at home,” Loehr said.