Living with risk: Yes, but don't you love the view?

Guest Opinion: An emergency management expert on why Washingtonians choose to live in areas vulnerable to a tsunami. Or an earthquake. Or a volcanic flow.
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Guest Opinion: An emergency management expert on why Washingtonians choose to live in areas vulnerable to a tsunami. Or an earthquake. Or a volcanic flow.

The average person doesn’t necessarily think about risk on a daily basis, which makes most people novices when it comes to understanding and calculating risk. There are many factors that make people accept risks that should give them pause if they really understood the odds. Perhaps this positive mental attitude is why we go to Vegas thinking that we might actually win big money — if we only get lucky.

The people living in Oso impacted by the mudslide never imagined that a disaster of the magnitude that hit them would ever really happen. In my work in emergency management, including as emergency management director for King County I have personally found people very comfortable with living with risk. What drives us as people to ignore facts comes in what I call the four stages of denial. 

Stage 1: It won’t happen. That is to say that whatever the risks are of an earthquake; hurricane; tornado or an asteroid hitting the earth — these things won’t happen. 

Stage 2: If it does happen, it won’t impact me. Sure disasters happen, but I’ve never suffered personal loss, so why should I expect it to happen to me in the future. After almost every big disaster, especially floods, we read of some old-timer saying, “I’ve lived here all my life and never seen anything like this!” We are particularly bad at telling geological time. We should not be using 60-to-80 year increments of life to predict what will happen.

Stage 3: If it does happen, and it does impact me, it won’t be that bad. We minimize what the potential impact might be. We’ve lived through storms, earthquakes, wildland fires before and we’ve been just fine. We’ll muddle through, always have, always will.

Stage 4: If it does happen and it is that bad, there is nothing we can do — we’ll all be dead anyway. It is this fatalist attitude that clears the conscience of any personal responsibility. A religious person might call it an “act of God”; therefore, “What can you do?”

In the coming weeks and months there will be plenty of legal action in Snohomish County with people suing government for not telling them about a slide hazard in the area where they chose to live. It will take years of litigation before all the cases are resolved. 

I strongly believe that on a beautiful sunny day last summer, if someone had gone house to house with information and maps explaining what the slide history has been in the past for the area around Oso the people would have listened politely and not changed their behavior, put their home up for sale, or even purchased land movement insurance due to the additional cost in premiums. Why is that? Because they liked living there in that spot. They had a beautiful setting in which to live. They were near nature and wildlife, enjoyed the peace and quiet, walking along the river, walking the trails up into the nearby woods. If they had a cabin, it might have have been a place where generations of a family had enjoyed their summers.

I am confident of my above conclusions because the same setting and other natural hazards abound in Washington and people do not change their behaviors. They deliberately ignore potential natural hazards in favor of the other benefits that come with living in a location that puts their property and personal lives in danger. 

The cities of Orting, Sumner, downtown Puyallup, Fife and other environs will someday be obliterated by a lahar coming off Mount Rainer when it eventually erupts again and sends its concrete-like slurry racing down the mountain side. Yet living in the valley is preferred by many.

The beaches of Ocean Shores and Long Beach will be swept clean like we’ve seen done in recent history in both Thailand and Japan from the tsunami that will follow a Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake. The cities of Westport and Aberdeen will look like the Japanese fishing villages with boats carried inland and a match-stick like pile of rubble left behind. And, yet we build new homes on the beach and “love being near the water” and watching those winter storms come in. It is just so relaxing to take a weekend and “get near the water.” 

Even in the big city of Seattle, we covet a view of the water. “No bank” waterfront property is prime real estate on Puget Sound, Lake Union, or Lake Washington. It is what we dream might be an idyllic setting in which to live. The hillsides of Magnolia and Perkins Lane are dotted with homes with million dollar views and price tags. Those sunsets over the Olympic Mountains are amazing! Yet, people are choosing today to live in homes and locations that are as much at risk of individually suffering the types of catastrophe that we witnessed along the Stillaguamish River. We were especially “lucky” when the Nisqually Earthquake that struck in 2001 hit in one of the driest winters in recent memory, which eliminated the possibility of hundreds of landslides occurring during that event.

Lastly, I feel confident in what I’m saying based on personal experience with my own family. When provided with all the information about the flood hazard, the potential for liquefaction and accentuated ground movement during an earthquake — my own son and his wife chose to live 65 feet from a creek running through downtown Puyallup, also in the path of that future lahar I mentioned. They have purchased flood insurance and they have earthquake insurance on their home. The house has been seismically retrofitted by fastening it to the foundation. The home where they live is an old raspberry farmhouse that has stood there in that spot since the 1930s (84 years) and, “They have never had a problem in the past.” It is a favorite family gathering place now. My grandsons’ fish in the stream, we watch waterfowl from the deck.

It would appear that we are hypnotized by water, the view and nature into believing that disasters only happen to other people and not us.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Holdeman

Eric Holdeman

Eric Holdeman, is the former director of the King County Office of Emergency Management.