At first, it was simply the excitement of a scientific discovery: that the Pacific Northwest, where I live, was wracked by great earthquakes in its recent past. During the 1980s, the U.S. Geological Survey held meetings and workshops to debate the possibility of catastrophic earthquakes beneath the magnificent mountains and verdant valleys of the land of Lewis and Clark. Then we held our own meeting in Oregon, and I became a convert.
But after a while, I began to wonder whether it was more important to discuss earthquakes with my scientific colleagues or, instead, with my wife, my next-door neighbor, or the state legislature. This question solved itself when, following the recognition of a looming earthquake threat, the earthquakes themselves started to arrive: Loma Prieta, California, in 1989, two Oregon earthquakes in 1993, and Northridge, California, in 1994. I found myself on the Rolodexes of media reporters, and I became a media resource (make that “talking head”), usually before I knew the details of the earthquake I was asked to explain.
In some respects, telling my Northwest neighbors that we have an earthquake problem has been like telling them about carpenter ants in their basement or about high blood pressure and high cholesterol as a result of high living. The reaction was, “Yes, I know, but I don’t want to think about it right now, let alone do anything about it.” But the sheer size of the earthquake problem dwarfs other concerns we face: thousands of fatalities and tens of billions of dollars in damage. Suddenly, earthquake science stopped being fun, and as a scientist, I began to feel like the watchman on the castle walls warning about barbarians at the gate, begging people to take me seriously.
Part of my frustration was that, despite the scientific discoveries and despite the television images of earthquake damage, nobody seemed to remember anything. I could give a talk to a civic club in 1995, two years after the two Oregon earthquakes, and find out in the question and answer period that most of my listeners were surprised to learn that they ought to be taking some steps to protect themselves against earthquakes, just as they would against fire. People on the street interviewed on television in 2003 after a small earthquake in north Portland were clueless about earthquakes.
A solution to my problem came at the university where I teach. Oregon State University had recently adopted a baccalaureate core curriculum that includes courses that synthesize and integrate student learning at the advanced undergraduate level. One of the components of the new curriculum is a course relating the discoveries of science to their impact on technology and on society (Yeats, 2003).
In 1995, I offered to teach a course that told the story of the scientific recognition of the earthquake problem in the Northwest and of how society has responded to it in terms of legislation, building codes, insurance premiums, elementary school curricula, and individual and community preparedness. The course was first taught in winter term, 1997, to a large class on campus and was also televised on three cable channels in Oregon. The class notes written for this course served as the nucleus of this book, a text for future classes. In 1998, the course was offered again on campus and on the three cable channels as well as four outlying classrooms via closed-circuit television. It has been taught every year since by Andrew Meigs or Bob Dziak.
Students signed up from across the campus community. I required a five-page term paper on a topic related to earthquakes. Although the prospect of reading nearly two hundred term papers was daunting, it turned out to be the most gratifying part of the course. Students wrote lesson plans for third graders, retrofit plans for their parents’ houses, designs for earthquake-resistant bridges, community response strategies, and potential escape routes from an impending tsunami, even the feasibility of surfing a tsunami! It turns out that surfing a tsunami can’t be done, but surfing the Internet allowed students, even in distant learning sites far from a university library, to get up-to-the-minute information, so that in some cases, the student learned about new developments before I did. I was reminded again of the awesome creative potential of motivated undergraduates, some only a few years out of high school, others returning to school in mid-life. Some of these term papers enriched my own experience and knowledge and thereby enriched this book.
Although the book was written for the students in these classes, it serves a larger community as well: families concerned about earthquake hazards in their decisions about where to live, legislators presented with bills to expand (or reduce) earthquake protection, insurance actuaries wondering what premiums to charge for earthquake insurance, high school principals and teachers trying to figure out why they are told to conduct earthquake drills in schools, local officials considering stricter ordinances to regulate growth while avoiding lawsuits, and the growing number of people involved professionally in emergency preparedness. With better knowledge about what is (and is not) possible, people can make more informed decisions.
Writing the book led me into subject areas in which I was woefully uninformed, and here I had a lot of help from others in seeking out information, in guest lectures to my class, and in reviewing chapters. My thanks go to Clarence Allen of Caltech, Derek Booth, Ken Creager, Bob Crosson, Ruth Ludwin, Bill Steele, and Kathy Troost of the University of Washington, Jeff Fletcher of Northern Pacific Insurance Co., Richard J. Roth of the California Department of Insurance, Joan Scofield of the Washington State Insurance Commissioner’s Office, Chris Jonientz-Trisler and Mark Stevens of FEMA, Brian Atwater, Pat McCrory, Alan Nelson, Steve Obermeier, Bob Schuster, Brian Sherrod, and Craig Weaver of the U.S. Geological Survey, Pat Pringle, Karl Wegmann, and Tim Walsh of the Washington Division of Geology and Earth Resources, Don Hull, Ian Madin, George Priest, and Yumei Wang of the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, Mark Darienzo of Oregon Emergency Management, John Cassidy of the Pacific Geoscience Centre, John Clague of Simon Fraser University, Kenji Satake of the University of Tokyo, Scott Ashford, Chris Goldfinger, Vern Kulm, Bob Lillie, Lisa McNeill, Andrew Meigs, Steve Dickenson, and Tom Miller of Oregon State University, Pat Corcoran of OSU Extension, Ray Weldon of the University of Oregon, Scott Burns and Ron Cease of Portland State University, Lori Dengler of Humboldt State University, Mark Benthien and John McRaney of the Southern California Earthquake Center, Jim Davis and Bob Sydnor of the California Geological Survey, Diane Murbach of the City of San Diego, Eldon Gath of Earth Consultants International, Jim Swinyard of Benton County, Oregon, Diane Merton of the Benton County Emergency Management Council, Roger Faris of the Finney Neighborhood Center in Seattle, Hal Mofjeld and Bob Dziak of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Bob Freitag of the Cascadia Regional Earthquake Workgroup (CREW), and David Middleton of the New Zealand Earthquake Commission. I learned much from the delegates to the Western States Seismic Policy Advisory Council meeting in Victoria, B.C. in October, 1997 and in Portland, Oregon, in September, 2003, and from a conference on Cascadia sponsored by the Geological Society of America in Seaside, Oregon.
Illustrations make a book. I received original photographs and drawings from Tanya Atwater (of the University of California, Santa Barbara), Chris Goldfinger of OSU, Meghan Miller, (then of Central Washington University), Sarah Nathe (then of the California Office of Emergency Services), Gordon Jacoby (of Columbia University). Robert Kamphaus (of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), Steve Obermeier, Rick Minor (of Heritage Research Associates), Kenji Satake, the late Karl Steinbrugge, Bill Steele, Tim Walsh, Pat Pringle, Karl Wegmann, David Oppenheimer, Brian Atwater, Alan Nelson, and David Wald of the U.S. Geological Survey, and Pat Williams (of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory). Original figures for this edition were drafted by Kristi Weber. The color slide collection of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, available from the National Geophysical Data Center, was the source of several photographs. Jack Ohman allowed me to use his perceptive cartoon that appeared in the Oregonian after the Scotts Mills earthquake in 1993, and Morika Tsujimura and Chris Scholz permitted the use of their cartoon in Chapter 7.
The second edition got its start as a result of my invitation by Ken Creager of the Department of Earth and Space Sciences of the University of Washington to assist him in an earthquake outreach class in the spring of 2003. This gave me the opportunity to talk to the large community of earthquake professionals in the Seattle area and to consider the impact of the Nisqually Earthquake of 2001, which struck after the publication of the first edition and tested the earthquake preparedness of the Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia metropolitan areas.
Thorough and constructive edits of the entire first-edition manuscript were provided by the late George Moore of Oregon State University and my wife, Angela, who pointed out my scientific jargon that got in the way of communicating to a lay readership. Jo Alexander of the OSU Press edited the final manuscript and carried both editions through to completion.
Ultimately, the success of this book will be measured after the next large earthquake, when we ask ourselves, “Were we ready?”
Robert S. Yeats
Suggestion for Further Reading
Yeats, R. S., 2003. Seismology and society: A course in why it all matters. Seismological Research Letters, v. 74, p. 625-27.