What will kickstart Northwest's earthquake preparations?

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Damage at the modern Sendai airport after the Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster of 2011: No use planning for something like that here, right?

A recent article in the New Yorker magazine about the Cascadia Earthquake threat received a great amount of attention in the popular press.  Multiple news organizations have profiled the story and sought to bring it home convincingly to their audiences.  The question is: will anything really change?

Six months or a year from now will the building codes be revised? Will landlords owning unreinforced masonry buildings — those that are most likely to pancake in an earthquake — be required to retrofit these buildings to address this public safety issue?  Will more than a smattering of individuals or families have taken action to become more personally prepared?

As someone who has worked on earthquake and disaster planning for years, I think not — for a variety of reasons. Any reasonable person might make the assumption that given all this geological history that is well documented will motivate people and organizations to change their behaviors.

However, I have come to realize earthquake readiness has little to do with tectonic plates, science and engineering. If it did, we humans who live, work and recreate in the Pacific Northwest would be more careful in choosing where we live and what investments we make in protecting our public and private infrastructure, our livelihoods and our families.

Rather than seeing people moved to action, I expect to observe a large collective yawn to emanate from people living in the danger zone.  It is not unlike how people look at their risks when living in the storm surge area of hurricanes.

Instead of action, there continues to be four stages of denial that apply to all disasters.  When presented with scientific facts people believe:

  • Whatever the disaster, it won’t happen.
  • If it does happen, it won’t happen to me.
  • If it does happen, and it does impact me, it won’t be that bad.
  • Lastly, the fatalist view is, if it does happen and it does impact me, and it is that bad, there is nothing I can do about it.

The only thing that seems to motivate people, organizations and politicians to act concerning disasters is personally experiencing a significant one.  Then, and only then, there is a window in time when people are willing to suspend their four stages of denial and do something to protect against future disasters.  We have seen this lack of action time and again.

The Cascadia Earthquake is not a Black Swan event, something coming out of the blue and totally unexpected.  In actuality what will happen will be “predictable surprises” that have been forecasted well in advance of any shaking.  There are plenty of existing studies bound up in three ring binders sitting on shelves with recommendations waiting to be implemented.  These studies will collect more dust than actions — until, we have that predicted disaster.

For instance, it is possible to immediately field a seismic warning system that is technically feasible — and already deployed and working in countries like Japan and Chile.  Here in the United States, however, we are still years away from a fully functioning warning system for the Cascadia Fault.

It is but one example of what will get immediate funding appropriated by Congress — right after the big one happens.  This will happen not in time to save lives and not in time to make a difference.

I’ll make this prediction.  There will be a great quake.  Roads and other critical infrastructure will be destroyed and totally inoperable.  People will die, many will be injured, but the survivors will outnumber them and wonder where their next meal and drink of water is coming from.  The timeline to repair damaged infrastructure will be measured in months and years.

In the case of the cities of Seattle and Portland, you will see people evacuating the city on foot because roads are impassable, taking what they can carry with them because life cannot be sustained and any sense of normalcy is gone.  Those businesses that can relocate will move away and it will be decades before there is a significant return of economic prosperity as we know it today.

And, assuming we maintain the course we are on, we will have done nothing meaningful before this event to change what now seems inevitable.


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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.