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Cascadia Apocalypse

I hail from Cascadia, a land of evergreen trees, deep blue waters, majestic snow-capped mountains, and across the Palouse, mesmerizing rolling hills.  The environment is idyllic.  Cities like Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland mesh together the beauties of nature with the convenience and enjoyment of multicultural cosmopolitan settings.  Mountains offering some of the best snow sports and hiking in the world stand only an hour or two away.  There is a wealth of industry, from the plethora of tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft, to manufacturing giants like Boeing and Weyerhaeuser. Costco, Starbucks, Nike, Nordstrom – need I name more?  Having lived across the United States, there are few places that even hold a candle to the Pacific Northwest. 

But not many of these places have the ever-threatening Cascadia Subduction Zone (“CSZ”) at their doorsteps.  Kathryn Schultz of The New Yorker published a masterful piece on the CSZ in 2015, and won a Pulitzer Prize for her prose a year later.  Her article describes “the really big one”, an overdue full-margin earthquake with a potential magnitude somewhere between 8.7 and 9.2 on the Richter scale.  It projects, citing a FEMA director, that everything west of Interstate 5 (the highway that runs through Portland and Seattle) “will be toast.”  Despite Schultz’s horrific illustrations of death and destruction that could imminently affect this beautiful region, governmental agencies at federal, state, and local levels have done little to prepare and encourage locals to do the same.     

Background – Diving Into the CSZ

The Cascadia Subduction Zone is a long dipping fault line that stretches from North Vancouver Island to Cape Mendocino, California (approximately 700 miles in length).  It runs between the Pacific and Juan de Fuca Plates, as illustrated below.

“Cascadia” refers to the nearby Cascade moutain range, a chain of volcanic mountains that run parallel to the subduction zone a hundred or so miles inland. A “Subduction Zone” is a region of the planet where one tectonic plate slides underneath (i.e., subducts) another. Tectonic plates are large slabs of mantle and crust that throughout the annals of time have rearranged the Earth’s continents and oceans (Pangea anyone?). Most of the time, subduction zone movement is at a snail’s pace and usually, is almost completely undetectable until it is anything but.

Subduction zone earthquakes are considered the largest earthquakes in the world, typically with magnitudes greater than 8.5.  The last known megathrust earthquake from the CSZ was in January, 1700, some 319 years ago.  Geologists estimate that the return interval of these earthquakes is approximately 400 to 600 years, with evidence indicating that at least seven have occurred in the last 3,500 years.

As a reference point to the power behind a CSZ quake, consider that a recent 6.2 magnitude earthquake in Japan lasted 20 seconds.  A CSZ earthquake would rumble and shake the region for three to six minutes.  Stop everything you’re doing and count for three to six minutes – it feels like eternity. 

The Tohoku earthquake that shook the world around Japan in 2011 is probably the best comparison of what could happen in the CSZ.  This 9.0 megaquake was one of the biggest earthquakes recorded in the past 100 years.  It lasted six minutes, killed more than eighteen thousand people, and triggered the meltdown at the Fukushima power plant, ultimately costing Japan over $200 billion in direct financial damages.  According to the World Bank, it was the costliest natural disaster in world history. This earthquake is significant because it leaves the Pacific Northwest as the only major subduction zone around the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire” to have not experienced a major quake in the last half century. For reference, the subduction fault of the Tohoku earthquake was dormant for more than 800 years before 2011. And to think a CSZ earthquake could be even worse.

One of the biggest threats from a CSZ quake is liquefaction.  In the Pacific Northwest, many forms of infrastructure stand on sand and silt.  This grainy soil acts like a liquid during a megathrust earthquake, causing everything from bridges, highways, skyscrapers, industrial facilities, etc., to shift position or even sink. Despite this threat, Oregon still maintains critical energy infrastructure on liquefiable land, with 90% of the state’s liquid fuel transported on it and with electrical substations and natural-gas terminals positioned on its surface.    

Liquefaction will be a secondary concern, however, when a massive tsunami slams the coastline 20 to 30 minutes after the quake subsides.  Multiple waves will hit the shores over several hours, flooding many inland areas even after the waves settle. FEMA estimates that nearly thirteen thousand people in the region will die from the CSZ earthquake and tsunami. Another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, and FEMA expects that it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million. Although according to FEMA, those numbers do not “account for exposure, disease, dehydration, starvation, or follow on tsunami’s and aftershocks.”

So What Have We Done and What Can We Do?

In the wake of Schultz’s article in The New Yorker, a consortium of government officials met in June 2016 to conduct a Cascadia Rising Exercise. The results (published improvements in 2017) were not reassuring. The key takeaway was that people would need to be prepared to stay on their own for up to two weeks, far longer than the conventional wisdom of three days. Officials learned through the exercise that many first responders would be in the same position as everyone else – fighting to survive the quake and tsunami, and trying to care for their families. After all, many of them would be stuck in the disaster zone too.

A strategic finding from the Cascadia Rising Exercise was that “the emergency management community lacked the capacity to respond to the unique complexities for a catastrophic disaster of this magnitude.” Most glaringly, “the exercise uncovered region-wide staffing and resource shortages. For numerous jurisdictions, the emergency management function was the responsibility of one staff member or, in some cases, was a collateral duty.” The report also discovered that no clear process existed for distributing limited resources across multiple jurisdictions, many of whom had no idea that numerous organizations had equal high priority needs. Water, for example, was essential for fulfilling the functioning needs of hospitals, fire departments, and mass care centers. The report highlighted the need for a more defined process for ensuring that limited resources get to the places that need them the most.

This planning is important because the report also projected that it would take at least 72 hours for supplies to arrive from neighboring states.  Responders would need to construct portable fuel depots and run pipes miles inland to aid police, fire departments, and others who probably will have little access to gas and diesel because of damaged roads and no electricity. Additional planning areas were also noted as “areas for improvement”, including the effectiveness of coordinating across agencies, organizing volunteers, or communicating life-saving messages.

Apart from bureaucratic planning, states like Washington have gradually worked to seismically upgrade its bridges. Oregon has led efforts to seismically upgrade its schools. Coastal communities have created bonds and other funding structures to do vertical evacuations or move critical assets out of inundation zones. While these measures are laudable, they are nothing close to the drastic measures necessary to save the countless small towns that sit directly in inundation zones (approximately 71,000 people). Minimal disaster alert systems exist, leaving people with only one primary warning sign – the vibrations themselves. If they are not taken seriously, the tsunami waves that arrive some 20 minutes later will likely wipe out entire communities. With most roads left impassable from the megaquake, escaping the impending tsunami on foot will be next to impossible.

These unique challenges faced by communities in inundation zones emphasize the importance of adequate planning and aggressive preventative measures. Schools and hospitals, for example, should be moved out of these danger zones (not allowed to stay under grandfathered zoning clauses). Critical infrastructure should be reinforced or moved as well. Cascadia Rising Exercises should not be conducted once a decade, but once per year at minimum. Local populations that could be affected, whether in inundation zones or not, should receive constant information and training opportunities from local officials. Just as residents of Miami would not live without storm shutters, residents of Cascadia should not live without adequate supplies capable of supporting their families for at least two weeks.

“An earthquake shall concern particularly the western area of the United States. Its power shall be felt in lands throughout the globe.”

Nostradamus, Les Propheties, forecasting a seismic event in 2019

Latent threats like earthquakes often fail to incentivize immediate action or preparation. The fact the last major CSZ earthquake occurred some 300 years ago makes it difficult to capture the attention of a society that has an increasingly short span for it. Awareness helps, especially given the fact most people underestimate the power of Mother Nature, but nothing beats thoughtful preparation.

The Pacific Northwest must take more precautions. Someone should be screaming daily warnings from the majestic Cascade mountain range formed by the very seismic events that threaten its inhabitants today. A CSZ earthquake is not a matter of if, but when. Local communities in inundation zones must take care in particular to ensure their populations have the bare necessities to survive potentially weeks without aid, power, water, fuel, etc. They must operate under the assumption that government resources will be insufficient given competing interests, or simply unable to reach them to help. Although a CSZ earthquake is inevitable in the near future, with some proactive steps, locals can still enjoy the beauties of the Pacific Northwest while simultaneously safeguarding their futures.

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