16 An Uncertain Appointment with a Restless Earth

“Five minutes before the party is not the time to learn to dance.”

Snoopy, 1982

A catastrophic earthquake is coming to the Pacific Northwest!

This shocking statement is surely true within a geologic time frame of thousands of years, because the evidence is strong that the Cascadia Subduction Zone will generate great earthquakes every few centuries. The last one was in A.D. 1700, three hundred years ago. The recognition that the Pacific Northwest is subject to large earthquakes was slow in coming, but since the 1980s, it has been accepted by the scientific community as a major paradigm change. As a result, the structural engineering community saw to it that building codes were upgraded, resulting in much higher safety standards than was the case a few years ago. The governors of California, Oregon, and Washington and the premier of British Columbia would all agree now that there is an earthquake problem within their jurisdictions. Earthquake drills are conducted in schools, and partnerships are developing between government and private industry in taking steps to deal with the earthquake hazard, especially the Cascadia Subduction Zone. On October 15 of each year, states conduct a public exercise called ShakeOur, in which local communities, schools, and emergency responders act as though they have just experienced a major earthquake at 10:15 a.m.

Yet there is a feeling of unreality about it all, a feeling extending even to those whose careers are in earthquake studies and preparedness. For example, I know that the place where I live and work has a potential for earthquakes, yet I have not taken all the steps called for in Chapters 11 and 15 to safeguard my home and family against earthquakes. I asked a neighbor of mine, a well-known seismologist, whether he had earthquake insurance. He hung his head sheepishly and replied, “No.”

I had my own experience with an earthquake in 1978 in Mexico City, where my friend Chuck Denham and I were sitting in the bar of a small hotel, planning an ascent of Mount Popocatépetl. We were having a beer at nine o’clock in the morning because we didn’t trust the water, and we didn’t want to get sick halfway up the mountain.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a chandelier start to sway. At first I thought I was imagining things, but then I gained enough confidence in my senses to say something to Chuck. At that instant, the first strong waves struck. Glasses and bottles toppled from the bar, chairs scraped back, and people began to yell in Spanish. The entire building began to rumble, like the noise of a train. Earthquake, I thought. The movement of the chandelier registered the P wave, and the strong shaking marked the S wave and the surface waves.

Despite all my wisdom about what to do in an earthquake, Chuck and I ran outside. I knew that it was the wrong thing to do, but rational behavior fled with the strong shaking. Fortunately, we were not bombarded by masonry or plate glass.

The scene in the street was surreal. The hotel was built very close to neighboring buildings, and each vibrated independently of the others so that their walls bounced together, like hands clapping. We waited for pieces of the building to fall off into the street, realizing at that instant how stupid it was for us to have run outside. Light poles waved back and forth. Parked cars rolled forward to hit the car in front, then backward to hit the car behind. The ground seemed like a thin sheet of plywood, bucking up and down, making it difficult to stand.

Then it was over. A siren wailed in the distance; otherwise it was deathly quiet. The buildings had not collapsed where we were, although we learned later that lives had been lost in other parts of the city.

Although aftershocks continued throughout the day, the whole experience seemed unreal, as though we had seen a UFO or heard a ghost in the attic. To this day, I find it hard to believe that the earthquake actually happened, even though every part of the experience is as vivid today as it was more than three decades ago. It was like a bad dream.

Perhaps this is our problem about earthquakes. An earthquake is an act of devastation, like the destruction of the World Trade Center, which happened, caused great damage and loss of life, and then was over. It’s difficult for us to recognize that the act of devastation that is a major urban earthquake is part of a continuum of Earth processes, of plate tectonics, of the raising of the Cascade and Olympic mountains and downwarp of the Seattle Basin.

The shaking of the Earth, a normal process to a geologist, is thought of as a bizarre aberration by everyone else—and perhaps even by geologists at the gut level, despite the knowledge gained by space satellites and seismographs. It is what scientists feel as opposed to what they know. Most people have only the feeling of unreality that an earthquake (or even the expectation of an earthquake) brings. An earthquake is so “unnatural” that it is almost impossible to believe, even when a person has experienced one.

One could describe this book as a morality play: the scientist points out the earthquake hazard to the public official, who refuses to take action, either through ignorance or greed. Taxpayers and their elected representatives refuse to pay for retrofit of buildings, living for today and gambling that they will be long gone and out of the game before the earthquake arrives to cash in its chips.

Our cholesterol level or our blood pressure is too high, or we smoke too much. But our personal feeling is that heart attacks, strokes, and cancer will always happen to the other guy. So it is with earthquakes. Even though an earthquake strikes a blow to Seattle or San Francisco, it’s unbelievable that an even larger earthquake might strike the entire coastal regions of Oregon, Washington, and Vancouver Island. It can’t happen here.

Confronting the earthquake threat might be similar to visualizing the U.S. national debt. The debt is in the trillions of dollars and getting larger, and our children will be the ones who have to deal with it. But this threat is so unreal that, like earthquakes, we put it out of our mind and allow our politicians to continue spending borrowed money rather than pay off the debt.

When Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on a table at the United Nations and said about the Soviet Union, “We will bury you,” there was a great media outcry, and many people began to build bomb shelters. After a while, though, the bomb shelter craze passed, even though the threat of nuclear annihilation increased. It didn’t seem real, and then, when the Soviet Union collapsed, it turned out that it hadn’t mattered after all. We ignored the nuclear threat, and for the most part it went away. Or not. There is still a major nuclear threat from the crisis between Ukraine and Russia, or between China and smaller countries around the South China Sea.

Surely there is a middle path, and perhaps we are taking it. The upgrading of building codes and grading standards is an encouraging response of government to the earthquake problem. When the next earthquake strikes, I want to be in a building constructed under modern building codes rather than in an older building constructed under the weak codes of an earlier day. In a few generations, the older, unreinforced masonry buildings will be gone, and most wood-frame buildings will be bolted to their foundations. If an earthquake does not arrive beforehand, it might have proven sufficient.

The pressure needs to be kept on local, state, and national governments to protect their citizens against earthquakes, just as we now require protection against fires and windstorms. The Obama and Bush administrations have kept the spotlight on the war on terrorism, but one must recognize that a huge earthquake striking a West Coast city could be called natural terrorism. We must be sure that regional economies do not collapse and insurance companies are not forced out of business in the event of a great subduction-zone earthquake. Nuclear power plants, dams, hospitals, and government command centers must be able to operate after a major earthquake.

And, finally, research must continue into the sources of earthquakes, just as we must continue to support research toward a cure for AIDS or for cancer. The Japanese took the Kobe Earthquake as a wake-up call, and they greatly boosted their efforts in preparedness and in research. But it was not enough. They underestimated the size of the March 11, 2011 subduction-zone earthquake off northeastern Japan. The result of this miscalculation was the loss of nearly 16,000 lives and the radioactive contamination of part of northeastern Japan because of the failure of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station.

North Americans have not done as much as the Japanese, perhaps because the national command centers and population centers in the United States and Canada are in the East, whereas the larger danger is in the West.

To be ready for our uncertain appointment with the next earthquake, we as taxpayers and voters need to keep the earthquake issue high on the list of priorities of our elected officials and our neighbors. A politician who fails to act must pay a political price before we all have to pay the ultimate price. For this to happen, we as a society must take an active role.

In response to the forthcoming earthquake, the Oregon legislature took some modest steps, including a “quick look” survey of public buildings, revealing that many are in danger of collapse in an earthquake. The 2011 legislature, led by Representative Debbie Boone of the north Oregon coast and Sen. Peter Courtney of Salem, authorized a resilience survey, completed in February, 2013, to estimate the cost of the next subduction-zone earthquake if little additional preparation takes place: the cost of doing nothing. The short answer: the cost will be staggering and may cause a sharp decline across the entire economy of the Pacific Northwest for years, in large part because it would take a long time to get lifelines and critical facilities up and running. To avoid this catastrophic outcome, the paradigm shift among the general public, including the cost of preparation, must take place now, before the earthquake, not at some undefined time in the future.

The problem can be visualized by comparing the effects of a magnitude 9 earthquake in Cascadia and Superstorm Sandy on the middle Atlantic coast in October, 2012. The economic losses from Sandy, estimated a year after the storm to be $65 billion, may be larger than the losses from the Cascadia earthquake because the value of the built environment, including the New York-Newark megacity, one of the largest in the world, is much higher than it is in the Northwest, even including the cities of Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, and Portland. But the loss of life could be a hundred times worse. The loss of life in the United States from Sandy, not including those killed in the Caribbean, is estimated at 182. The loss of life in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami will be in the thousands, possibly as high as ten thousand. One reason for this is that the U.S. Weather Service was able to predict that the Sandy storm track would turn inland at New Jersey and New York, and people were able to take precautions, including evacuation. Unless scientists suddenly figure out how to predict earthquakes, the Cascadia earthquake would strike without warning. Cascadia would also be accompanied by strong ground shaking lasting several minutes, which was not an issue with Sandy.

A comparison with the Tohoku-oki Earthquake of magnitude 9 on March 11, 2011 is instructive. Japan’s long history includes many earthquakes that have claimed tens of thousands of lives, including the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, in which more than 140,000 died. Because of its history and its culture, Japan is the best-prepared country on Earth against earthquakes. The deaths from the Tohoku-oki earthquake were nearly sixteen thousand, but these were mostly from the tsunami. Losses from strong shaking and building collapse were much lower than they would have been in the Pacific Northwest, because most Japanese buildings, including critical facilities, had already been strengthened against seismic shaking.

The magnitude 9 superquake and tsunami that devastated northeast Japan in 2011 was the same size as the 1700 AD earthquake and tsunami that struck Cascadia. Coastal Japanese communities subsided during the earthquake, permanently flooding streets near the sea, similar to the subsidence in 1700 measured by Brian Atwater along the Washington coast that drowned the coastal forest. The Pacific Northwest must plan for a subduction-zone earthquake the size of Tohoku-oki.

The Next Cascadia Earthquake. Several groups, including Oregon Emergency Management, have attempted to visualize the next Cascadia earthquake through statewide training exercises. In 2011, Jerry Thompson and Simon Winchester presented a graphic and chilling account of this earthquake in Cascadia’s Fault, a book Thompson published in 2011. But the Oregon Legislature wanted to know the length of time essential services would be down, and whether this would cause businesses to flee the state in order to survive? The resilience survey commissioned by the legislature illustrated the cost to Oregon of doing nothing or of taking only modest steps. The answers it gave to those questions were so catastrophic as to be almost unimaginable. They included a decline in the economy of the state lasting up to a generation. Although this survey was limited to Oregon, its implications apply fully to Washington, which has completed its own resilience survey, to northern California, and to coastal British Columbia.

The resilience survey was directed by the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission (OSSPAC), which created eight working groups of citizens from government, universities, the private sector, and the general public to examine the impacts on business, the energy sector, transportation and lifelines, water and wastewater pipelines, communications, and critical facilities, with a special focus on the coast. Each group was asked to assess the impact on its respective sector, including the time required to restore function to the way it had been prior to the earthquake.

An earthquake of magnitude 9 would cause violent shaking for three to five minutes along the entire Northwest coast from northern California to central Vancouver Island, causing severe damage to unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings and wood-frame houses not bolted to their foundations. The strong shaking would be accompanied by landsliding and liquefaction, which would rupture underground utilities, including water and sewer lines. Gas escaping from underground gas lines broken by liquefaction would catch fire, as occurred in the Mission District of San Francisco after the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989.

The earthquake would be followed about twenty minutes later by a tsunami that would be similar to the Tohoku-oki tsunami that caused thousands of deaths in Japan. The tsunami would overwhelm parts of low-lying towns like Tillamook, Astoria, Seaside, Cannon Beach, Coos Bay, and Newport (ironically including the NOAA tsunami research center at the Hatfield Marine Science Center at Newport), all of which are in the expected tsunami runup zone. The Oregon resilience survey concluded that the zone of tsunami inundation would include more than ten thousand housing units with a resident population greater than 22,000. Also inundated would be nearly 1,900 businesses employing nearly 15,000 people. The coast would subside abruptly and permanently by five to ten feet, as it did after the last great earthquake in 1700 AD (and as the Tohoku coast of Japan did in 2011). The estimated losses in Oregon alone would be $32 billion.

Washington losses estimated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would be $49 billion, larger than Oregon’s because of the higher value of property at risk. Adding in northern California and southwest British Columbia, the economic losses could bankrupt the insurance industry and severely damage the economies of all the affected states or provinces as well as the national economies of the United States and Canada. Only the California part of the subduction zone has taken steps to upgrade its dangerous buildings.

The Oregon resilience survey showed that of the 2,567 highway bridges in Oregon, 982 were built without any seismic considerations, and only 409 were designed specifically with Cascadia subduction-zone earthquakes in mind. The vulnerability of Northwest bridges was brought home to the public on May 24, 2013, when an Interstate 5 bridge near Mount Vernon, in western Washington, collapsed into the Skagit River due to a truck colliding with the bridge superstructure. Since that disaster, many bridges in the Pacific Northwest have been declared as “obsolete,” indicating that examination of bridges should include their resistance to earthquake shaking.

The resilience survey concluded that many bridges on the coast would collapse in an earthquake, isolating coastal communities from one another and from rescue operations launched from inland cities not damaged by the earthquake. Submarine cables would be cut, isolating the Northwest from Alaska and other parts of the Pacific Ring of Fire. The earthquake would instantly damage or destroy electric power lines, natural gas lines, water and sewer systems, hospitals, police stations, and school buildings. 24,000 buildings would be completely destroyed, and another 85,000 would be damaged so extensively that they would take months to years to repair. In summary, the earthquake, even a smaller one affecting only that part of the subduction zone in southern Oregon and northern California, would be a major catastrophe.

According to the Oregon resilience survey, it would take one to three years to restore drinking water and sewer service to the coast and one month to one year to restore water and sewer service to the Willamette Valley and Portland. Restoring the top priority highways to at least partial function would take six to twelve months, and restoring police and fire stations in the Valley would take four months. Restoring electricity and natural gas to the coast would take three to six months, and restoration of health-care facilities to operational status would take eighteen months in the Willamette Valley and three years on the coast. Comparable estimates of recovery time were made independently in the resilience survey for the state of Washington. (Northern California differs only in a program authorized by the Legislature to replace URM buildings, a program now underway.) These resilience surveys were combined by the Cascadia Region Earthquake Workgroup (CREW) in a single publication, Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquakes: A Magnitude 9.0 Earthquake Scenario, which was independently published by the geological surveys of Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. The CREW report used the response of Chile to a superquake of magnitude 8.8 in 2010, important to the Northwest because Chile is a developed country that has experienced subduction-zone earthquakes. This report is sobering to read, but should be read by all living in the Northwest to accelerate the paradigm shift among the general public. In May, 2015, Chile experienced an earthquake of magnitude 8.3 that cost the lives of eight people. A similar earthquake in the same region in 1939 took more than 20,000 lives. For Chile, preparation paid off.

Regarding highways, the main highway between the Willamette Valley and Newport is now being retrofitted, but failure to recognize landslides along the route has led to delays in completion of several years and an increase in the construction costs so large that the Oregon Department of Transportation considered abandoning the project after investing millions of dollars in it.

The length of time required to restore services, including transportation lifelines, means that those businesses that had not already failed due to building damage or tsunami flooding could not afford to stay and would start to leave Oregon and Washington after about a month. As businesses left, people would also leave, following the jobs to locations not affected by the earthquake. The result would be a loss of population and a declining economy that might take a generation to recover. This, then, is the true cost of not strengthening lifelines and public structures against the inevitable earthquake.

Smaller-scale examples of a similar scenario include two major storms, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Katrina and Sandy differ from the Cascadia earthquake in that warnings were issued by the U.S. Weather Service, but there was no warning of some of the most catastrophic effects, including the failure of levees on the Mississippi River near New Orleans, the tsunami-like storm surge against coastal towns in Mississippi and, for Sandy, the storm surge flooding neighborhoods in coastal New Jersey and New York State. The death toll from Katrina was 1,464 people. 70,000 jobs were lost, and the damage was $128 billion. Evacuation to other parts of the country caused the population of New Orleans to shrink from 445,000 to 312,000 two and a half years later. Removal of floodwaters and repair and strengthening of the levees were (and still are) long-term and costly undertakings.

Hurricane Sandy was also a catastrophe from which it will take many months if not years to recover. A year after the storm, many homes are still in ruins, and homeowners are in litigation with their insurance companies and in arguments with local government over how much help government should provide them. Should the coast be rebuilt just as it was, or should a broader section be left undeveloped in the event of another Sandy, as suggested by Professor Orrin Pilkey of Duke University, an expert in the hazards of development along coastlines? The coastal boardwalks of New Jersey cities are the sites of many small businesses as well as large casinos, indicating major damage to the tourist industry. Can these businesses survive?

The Cascadia earthquake differs from Katrina and Sandy in one more way: the affected area would be hundreds of times larger.

The lesson of the resilience studies of Oregon and Washington is that there is a monstrous price tag attached to doing nothing or taking only token steps. Failure to strengthen lifelines, including bridges and utility networks, city halls, police stations, school buildings, and hospitals, has a huge cost: a decades-long decline of the Northwest economy. If industry is forced to leave the Northwest, then one must factor in sharply lower tax revenues and sharply higher unemployment. This will require outside assistance to the Northwest and British Columbia from the national governments of the United States and Canada. Both countries would be required to play a major financial role in recovery and, for the United States government, would defer the reduction of the national debt, currently one of its highest political priorities.

The Federal government has taken a large role in the process of recovery from Katrina and is expected to take a major role in the recovery from Sandy, at least in the most devastated states of New York and New Jersey. A bill in Congress to provide more than 60 billion dollars for recovery in New York and New Jersey failed to pass due to congressional dithering about the fiscal cliff. The bill was only passed months later a result of public outrage against Congress for failing to take action. It was not an encouraging sign for how the federal government in Washington would respond to the Cascadia earthquake in the faraway Northwest.

A more realistic comparison of the destruction from the next Cascadia earthquake is the firebombing of Japanese cities in the late stages of World War II or the devastation of the economy of the southern United States caused by the Civil War. These were disasters affecting the economy on a national scale. In each case, recovery took decades, at least a generation.

Unfortunately, science cannot tell whether the Cascadia earthquake will strike tomorrow or a century from now, but science can say, without a doubt, that there will be a major subduction-zone earthquake in the near future. If the paradigm shift about the next Cascadia earthquake is to be realized among the general population of the Northwest, action must begin now. This means that the forthcoming earthquake needs to be debated and dealt with by the state and provincial legislatures, by civic leaders, by the media, and by the public at large, because it will require taxpayer dollars, including assistance from the Federal governments of Canada and the United States. It will require a financial commitment from society, both at the state and provincial level and at the national level, to prepare for the next earthquake now so that when it strikes, it will be a manageable crisis. At the present time, the Oregon resilience survey has not led to any action by the Oregon Legislature. Even though the survey was presented to the Oregon legislature during the 2013 session, no bills have been introduced to deal with the problem, and the state media have not taken the Legislature to task for ignoring the problem. Same for the Washington resilience survey. A transportation bill, which would have included retrofits of bridges identified by the resilience survey, failed to pass or even to be debated by the 2015 Legislature. The Oregonian newspaper did not take the Legislature to task on this issue.

The Washington State resilience survey contains recommendations on responding to the earthquake threat in the next 50 years. The actions to be taken include responses by the office of the governor and the state legislature, which will in turn require a financial sacrifice by the residents of the state. This involvement assumes that the Governor and Legislature will have the political will to act on the recommendations of the resilience survey, including providing the necessary resources. It also assumes that the citizens will recognize what needs to be done in advance of the earthquake and will demand action by their elected leaders. Will they? The same question may be asked in Oregon, northern California, and British Columbia, although California is already taking steps to eliminate its inventory of URM buildings.

As a resident of the Northwest, I find the failure to take meaningful action against this threat unacceptable and irresponsible. Will we and our elected officials rise to the challenge? Can my colleagues and I make a more convincing case leading to action?

My colleague at the University of Tokyo, Professor Yasutaka Ikeda, warned his countrymen in advance that the Tohoku region of northeast Japan should be preparing for a subduction-zone earthquake of magnitude 9, not 8 to 8.4. After the earthquake, I asked him if he was telling his countrymen “I told you so.” He sadly said no, that he blamed himself for not doing a better job of convincing the Japanese authorities and the general public. To him, his inability to make the case to his countrymen for a magnitude 9 in advance was the greatest failure of his long and distinguished career.

I have similar concerns.

The Oregon and Washington resilience surveys laid out a plan to strengthen the state against the inevitable Cascadia earthquake in the next fifty years. If we start now, there is a probabilistic 90% chance we can strengthen ourselves against the next earthquake before it happens, if our probability estimates are correct. But at the present time, this is not on the Legislature’s to-do list in either state. No bills have been introduced, no legislative committees have been established to make recommendations to state government, and no attempt has been made by state politicians to raise the money. There is also no demand by the general public for state officials to address the threat of the next Cascadia earthquake. The paradigm shift has not yet occurred.

The southern part of the subduction zone is in California, which experienced a small subduction-zone earthquake in 1992. Since 1986, state legislation has required local jurisdictions in harm’s way from earthquakes to conduct inventories of hazardous unreinforced-masonry buildings and to remove these buildings from use. The City of Eureka has had a program since 1989, and most of the buildings identified in Eureka’s inventory have now been retrofitted. In addition, in 2003, the City of Vancouver installed a dedicated fire-protection system that will allow firefighters to pump water from two nearby creeks, important because of the danger of fire after a major urban earthquake.

California has taken small but important steps. But no comparable program exists in Oregon or Washington.


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Living With Earthquakes In The Pacific Northwest Copyright © 2020 by Robert S. Yeats is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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