If you live in Oregon, Washington, northern California, or British Columbia, you MUST do this -- read a scarily truthful story in The New Yorker, "The Really Big One: an earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest; the question is when.
Kathryn Schulz wrote the piece beautifully.
Like everybody who writes for The New Yorker, she has a marvelous way of putting words together. In this case, to describe how everything west of the Cascades is going to fall apart when the Big One, or the Really Big One, strikes.
By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable. Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA’s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”
In the Pacific Northwest, everything west of Interstate 5 covers some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people.
When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America.
Roughly three thousand people died in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. Almost two thousand died in Hurricane Katrina. Almost three hundred died in Hurricane Sandy. FEMA projects that nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami.
Another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, and the agency expects that it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million.
My wife and I live just a few miles west of Interstate 5. So maybe our house and property will be a little bit less toasted than areas farther west.
That thought did nothing to calm the scary feelings that coursed up my spine as I read Schulz' story.
We've done some seismic retrofitting of our house that was built just before earthquake construction standards were put in place in 1974. But when the Big One or Really Big One hits, everything and everyone in the western portion of the Pacific Northwest is going to be impacted.
Wineglasses, antique vases, Humpty Dumpty, hip bones, hearts: what breaks quickly generally mends slowly, if at all. OSSPAC estimates that in the I-5 corridor it will take between one and three months after the earthquake to restore electricity, a month to a year to restore drinking water and sewer service, six months to a year to restore major highways, and eighteen months to restore health-care facilities.
On the coast, those numbers go up. Whoever chooses or has no choice but to stay there will spend three to six months without electricity, one to three years without drinking water and sewage systems, and three or more years without hospitals. Those estimates do not apply to the tsunami-inundation zone, which will remain all but uninhabitable for years.
The Big One earthquake can happen tomorrow. Given the recurrence pattern over the past 10,000 years, we're overdue.
However, since the last massive Cascadia subduction zone earthquake was in 1700, no one has any memory of it. Even historical records are few and far between. So denial runs deep in the minds of those who should be preparing for the next Big One.
Which in my area notably includes Salem's Mayor and City Council.
I and other citizen activist gad-flies have been buzzing around, doing our best to wake them up to the reality of the coming Big One devastation that is a matter of when, not if.
Hopefully this New Yorker story will scare them as much as it scared me.
After the Big One hits, survivors will look at the deaths and destruction, asking Why didn't our elected officials do more to get ready for the earthquake, since everybody knew it was coming?
That will be an excellent question for then. It's an even better question for NOW.
Here in Salem the Mayor and City Council majority inexplicably are more concerned with building a new unneeded half-billion dollar bridge across the Willamette River than they are with spending hugely less money to improve the existing two bridges so they'll remain standing after the Big One hits.
Our city officials also are turning a deaf ear to pleas to immediately seismically retrofit City Hall and the Library so lives will be saved and essential government services will be maintained when the ground shakes like it hasn't shaken for over 300 years.
Schulz speaks about why this region is so unprepared, and why public officials are so uncaring.
On the face of it, earthquakes seem to present us with problems of space: the way we live along fault lines, in brick buildings, in homes made valuable by their proximity to the sea. But, covertly, they also present us with problems of time.
The earth is 4.5 billion years old, but we are a young species, relatively speaking, with an average individual allotment of three score years and ten. The brevity of our lives breeds a kind of temporal parochialism—an ignorance of or an indifference to those planetary gears which turn more slowly than our own.
This problem is bidirectional. The Cascadia subduction zone remained hidden from us for so long because we could not see deep enough into the past. It poses a danger to us today because we have not thought deeply enough about the future.
That is no longer a problem of information; we now understand very well what the Cascadia fault line will someday do. Nor is it a problem of imagination. If you are so inclined, you can watch an earthquake destroy much of the West Coast this summer in Brad Peyton’s “San Andreas,” while, in neighboring theatres, the world threatens to succumb to Armageddon by other means: viruses, robots, resource scarcity, zombies, aliens, plague.
As those movies attest, we excel at imagining future scenarios, including awful ones. But such apocalyptic visions are a form of escapism, not a moral summons, and still less a plan of action. Where we stumble is in conjuring up grim futures in a way that helps to avert them.
That problem is not specific to earthquakes, of course. The Cascadia situation, a calamity in its own right, is also a parable for this age of ecological reckoning, and the questions it raises are ones that we all now face. How should a society respond to a looming crisis of uncertain timing but of catastrophic proportions? How can it begin to right itself when its entire infrastructure and culture developed in a way that leaves it profoundly vulnerable to natural disaster?