Local disaster? Idea gets a Chile reception

The quake and tsunami in South America is a sobering reminder of the double-punch disasters Seattle and the Pacific Northwest face.
The quake and tsunami in South America is a sobering reminder of the double-punch disasters Seattle and the Pacific Northwest face.

My recent story musing on disaster politics and the prospect of Seattle being a future Pompeii was well received, but some went into scoff mode: "What the heck are you talking about? Almost every location on earth is at risk of some potentially catastrophic natural disaster. Seattle is not special in that regard," wrote on commenter.

While true that disasters can befall any of us (not to mention the potential for the planet being whacked by an asteroid), the Seattle area is unusual for an American city because of the number and scale of potentially catastrophic disasters that are built into our geography. Few major U.S. cities are more threatened by such a combination of volcanic events, tsunamis, and large magnitude earthquakes. Probably the biggest potential disaster is one we rarely think of: a massive Rainier mudflow followed by tsunamis on Puget Sound creating a devastating "superflood." But Seattle's good-living lulls us into a false sense of security. Mount Rainier looks like a mother's breast, not nature's next 9-11.

Politicians are attuned to disaster potential when it suits them, and no one wants to be remind folks of George W. Bush having his Katrina moment, or Greg Nickels during the city's snowplow meltdown. The massive quake-and-tsunami combination in Chile (especially in the wake of Haiti) is enough to re-stimulate thought and policy. This week, Mayor Mike McGinn acted on his proposal to get moving with the seawall replacement project. (Though "replacement" might be a misnomer since a likely approach would be to not replace the old wall but to encase it within a new, stronger wall.)

In a March 2 press release detailing his proposal for a seawall bond measure, the crumbling structure's vulnerability to earthquakes was emphasized. "There is now a one in ten chance that the seawall will fail within the next ten years from seismic forces associated with earthquakes of the magnitude experienced in our region." There is geological evidence of tsunami-like wave action in Puget Sound, and with what happened to Chile's coastal communities, it's not hard for us to imagine now how the double whammy of quake and waves might impact our waterfront.

The worst threats for big quakes are along the long faults on the West Coast. Thomas Holzer, a research geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey says Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Northern California (read Cascadia) are where the hazards are greatest. Writes Lucy Jones of the USGS' Multi-Hazards Demonstration Project for Southern California: "All of the major cities of the West Coast of the United States are at risk from earthquakes similar to what just happened in Chile."

Recent studies indicate that our region's next megaquake could occur much closer to Seattle than previously thought, reports the Seattle Times. A magnitude 9 quake (Chile's was 8.8) only happens along our coast every 400 or 500 years, but the last time was in 1700, so the clock is ticking if not for us, our grand-children. The epicenter of the quake, once thought to be in the Pacific Ocean some 100 miles away, could actually be located much closer to the I-5 corridor, perhaps as close as 50 miles from Seattle, according to new research. That would prove devastating to Pugetopolis. Of course, other quakes are possible in the vicinity too, including along the Seattle Fault, which runs right under the city.

It's right to be skeptical of politicians who use disasters and emergencies to move every pet project. Remember that the potential move out of town by the Seattle Seahawks was declared an "emergency" so that a vote could be taken on building a new stadium. Gov. Chris Gregoire has dubiously used the Minnesota bridge collapse to make her case for building a new bridge across the Columbia when, in fact, the factors causing the Minnesota bridge to fail were structural problems unique to it. Too, priorities often seem skewed: Why are we getting funding for the so-called "Mercer Mess" when saving the "crumbling" of the South Park Bridge seems more urgent?

Beyond the hype, the region is going to face a major disaster bigger than any we've seen (not to mention multiple mini ones), and people then will judge us then on how thoughtful and prepared we were today. Will they thank us for our efforts, or curse us for our complacency and short-sighted opportunism?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.