By Bruce A. Smith
Next week, June 6-10, local, state and federal officials will be conducting the nation’s largest-ever earthquake drill, called Cascadia Rising. Over 6,000 first responders, military personnel, and emergency management crews will simulate what life will be like throughout the Puget Sound region in the event of The Big One, a 9.0 quake.
In advance of this exercise, the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management (DEM) sent community action teams into Graham and other locales in March to talk about such a historic earthquake, and Peggy Lovellford of the DEM said “It is not a question of ‘if,’ but ‘when.’”
Recent scientific studies reveal that the infamous Ring of Fire around the Pacific Basin is subject to major earthquakes emanating from the deep subduction zones of the earth’s crusts. These are deeper and more infrequent earthquakes than the usual tremors we feel periodically, such as the 7.2 Nisqually quake in 2001, or any of the activity along the notorious San Andreas Fault in California.
Rather than, these subduction zone quakes are the result of a tension-release as one continental mass slides over another. Due to the enormous weights involved, friction occurs, and these so-called tectonic plates stick temporarily. Periodically, they let go, and the result is a huge release of energy.
Here in the Pacific Northwest we have the Cascadian Subduction Zone (CSZ), where the 90,000 square mile North American plate is moving across the floor of the Pacific Basin, a earthen mass known as the Juan de Fuca plate. Research over the past two decades at the University of Washington has confirmed that our area has experienced 40 such massive earthquakes in the past 10,000 years in the CSZ, with the last major quake occurring in 1700. On average, the CSZ experiences a major quake every 250-400 years, so mathematically, we are on track for another Big One. More troubling, the CSZ is the only major subduction zone on the planet not to have had a major “rip” in the last 50 years.
As a result, seismologists estimate that the chances of a 9.0 quake occurring here in our lifetime is 1-in-10. But FEMA and the DEM indicate that the destruction of our Big One will be greater than any other subduction zone quake because the CSZ is so close to Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, BC. Other recent subduction zones quakes, such as the Tohoku quake off the coast of Japan which caused the Fukishima incident, or the massive tsunami in Indonesia that killed over 200,000 people in 2004, occurred far from any city. Since the CSZ parallels the Washington, Oregon, and BC coastline, the major cities of the Pacific Northwest will be only a 200 miles or so away from the epicenter.
Officials estimate that the destruction will be epic—most of the 10,000 bridges and overpasses throughout the Puget Sound and Oregon will be crippled, with virtually all roadways impassible. Fuel, water, and sewage lines will be severed throughout the entire area, and the infrastructure will stay inoperable for at least 30 days. Nearly 20,000 people are expected to perish in the earthquake and accompanying tsunami, along with tens of thousands of wounded. Millions of people will be homeless and needing shelter. The only transportation will be by helicopter or small, fixed-wing aircraft that can land on a small patch of land.
FEMA says that it has over one million MREs stockpiled for this event, but how will they be delivered? Further, what happens when the other 9 million residents of the Pacific Northwest get hungry and thirsty?
Many of us have been anticipating such a disaster for years. Others, perhaps not as much. But what resources will be available to us now that officialdom is beginning to awaken to this threat, and what is the true nature of our preparation? Is a twenty-year old bag of rice still edible? Can we truly survive on our own for months? How long will it take to rebuild? Local preppers, such as the Graham Self-Reliant Community, are meeting to discuss these scenarios and to push local fire departments and governmental officials develop real plans for surviving the Big One and its aftermath.
In the meantime, here is what we know about the actual Cascadia Rising exercise, the potentials and dangers of a 9.0, and an overview of local and regional preparations.
To begin, the scientific study of subduction zone earthquakes is a relatively recent development, and we now know enough to launch some measure of personal and governmental preparation. First, subduction zone earthquakes announce themselves with 30-90 seconds worth of compressional waves that are released before the seismic waves, which cause the shaking. None of our early warning telemetry will record these compressional waves in time to alert the public, but dogs everywhere will start howling. This could give people a minute to escape a dire situation, such as moving away from a window or seeking shelter next to a bed.
Since the Big One can strike at any time of the day or night, and in any season, it is wise to have a “grab and go” bag stashed in the car or at work. A bottle of water, some power bars, and a first-aid kit may help you get home or to a safer place. Plus, an old sleeping bag in the trunk of a car, rain gear, and some warm clothes might save your life.
The next level of preparation expands those potentials, and even minimal efforts can be beneficial. Securing home appliances with brackets to the floor and walls will prevent anyone from being crushed when they fall. Computers, hard drives, lamps and other office tools can be similarly secured with Velcro strips or brackets. Kitchen hardware and appliances on counter tops should be minimal—who wants to be whacked in the head with a flying toaster?
Then store water, as it is truly the essential of life. The DEM team said in Graham that everyone should have enough water stored in bottles and jugs for a week, and that means at least seven gallons of water per person. However, the FEMA press releases on Cascadia Rising indicate that the Big One could cripple our infrastructure so severely that most people will be without any municipal services, including water, for at least a month. That quadruples the amount of water folks need to secure in barrels and other large containers.
Additionally, what about pets?
Expanding upon the possibilities, individual medical issues need to be faced, and the DEM team in Graham recommended that some patients will need to stretch out their time between treatments with modified diets, such as dialysis patients eating a more restrictive menu and hoping they can get their blood filtered within a week.
Along those lines, many elderly and medically fragile people will have to be evacuated as soon as possible, which means transporting them to a relocation center. Such reception areas are being established in eastern Washington and Idaho, but the transport to those centers will be problematic.
In lieu of that, neighbors will need to take care of each other. But first, we will have to learn who our neighbors are! Hence, earthquake preparation means socializing now. To help, the DEM has staff who assist communities in building a network of neighbors—identifying who has what needs and who can assist, such as who might have a wood-burning stove and be able to provide warmth in the wintertime.
Since power and electricity will be knocked out immediately, all ATMs will be down. As a result, the DEM team recommended that people keep as much spare cash on hand as possible. In the 2012 Sandy hurricane incident in New York, local mom-and-pop retail stores stayed open to supply batteries, clothing, rain gear, and some food to customers—one-at-a-time for security reasons—and they insisted on cash in advance.
As for the basics of the Big One—what exactly will happen, and where? The Cascadia Subduction Zone is a 700-mile stretch of earthen crust, ranging from Vancouver Island in British Columbia to northern California. A “full-release” of pressure along this front will initiate the Big One, and it will deliver four-six minutes of ground shaking. This type of event will also be followed by frequent aftershocks, with magnitudes up to 7.0. These will cause about 30-60 seconds of shaking as well. In contrast, a “partial release” subduction zone earthquake will have about three-minutes of sustained shaking.
This shaking will be enormously destructive because of a natural process called liquefaction, which is the jelly-like quivering of land areas built upon fill, sand, or silt-laden soils. Approximately ten-percent of downtown Seattle is filled-in lowlands, and it is particularly vulnerable to this kind of shaking. Essentially, everything built in these areas will be shaken apart and destroyed, including all underground pipes and structures.
Similarly, swampy and low-lying areas located in river valleys will also experience near-total destruction, with the added danger that the water “shaken” out of the ground will rise to the surface and cause flooding. A recent subduction zone quake in New Zealand produced instant lakes in the suburbs of Christchurch that were five-feet deep, and the pudding-like ground swallowed cars, roads, and buildings.
The shaking will also trigger numerous landslides, and the Seattle Department of Emergency Management reportedly estimates that the city will experience nearly 30,000 landslides.
For those structures on solid ground, they will move. Buildings near the epicenter will drop six feet in elevation and jump 30 feet westward. This kind of movement will topple many bridges and fracture most roadways and rail lines, and certainly rupture most fuel, water, and sewage lines.
Since 75% of all structures in Washington are not designed to withstand a 9.0 earthquake—such codes were only enacted in 1994—the destruction will be widespread.
Specifically, FEMA anticipates the following scenario:
- 3,000 schools will collapse or be compromised throughout the Puget Sound region
- 1/2 of all highway bridges will collapse
- 1/3 of all rail lines will be destroyed
- 1/3 of all fire stations will be inoperable
- 1/2 of all police stations will be compromised
- 2/3 of hospitals will be damaged
- 90% of all port facilities destroyed
In additional, all airport runways are expected to be severely damaged.
Since the Cascadian subduction zone lies about 50 miles off-shore of Washington and Oregon, the resulting tsunami will strike land within ten-fifteen minutes. At the beginning, a wall of water about 15-20 feet high will inundate miles of coastline. Then, the seismic waves will push ever-greater plateaus of water every 60 seconds or so, for an hour, peaking with a surge of 35-40 feet. As a result, most coastal areas in Washington will be obliterated, and FEMA predicts that the urban areas of Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Ocean Shores and Westport will experience a “total wash over,” producing a complete loss of life. Speculation exists that the tsunami may travel up river valleys as far as Chehalis, placing some saltwater onto I-5.
FEMA Region X Director Patrick Massey, the individual guiding Cascadia Rising, is quoted in a New York Magazine article on the exercise as saying “Everything west of I-5 will be toast.” But DEM officials have tried to dial-back that comment. Nevertheless, seismologist Bill Steele of the University of Washington told me the same thing when I interviewed him during the Fukishima incident in 2011.
The result of all this destruction will be the greatest natural catastrophe in recorded human history. According to investigative journalist Kathryn Schultz in the above-mentioned New York Magazine story, FEMA expects the casualties to be staggering:
- 13,000 killed, mostly from the tsunami
- 27,000 injured
- 1 million displaced people
- 2.5 million people in immediate need of food and water
- 10 million people affected
Schultz also writes that FEMA is predicting that the recovery effort will stretch far beyond what local officials, such as the DEM team in Graham, are willing to admit:
- 1-3 months for electricity to be restored to most urban areas
- 1-12 months for water and sewage to be restored
- 6-12 months for the highways to be restored
- 18 months for healthcare facilities to become functional
As a result, the Pacific Northwest may become a “dead-zone,” where only construction crews live and work. The economy may become too shattered to support any kind of city life. Could Microsoft or Amazon survive without electricity for a month? How could Boeing continue to build planes if its employees can’t get to work because the roads are impassable? How can anything get done “work-wise” in the usual sense of that term when everyone is dealing with immediate survival—eating, staying warm and dry, having water to drink and bathe, coping with routine medical issues or dealing with the thousands recovering from earthquake-caused injuries?
But, there is a ray of light in all of this darkness. Besides the Cascadia Rising exercise, which certainly signals that officials are acknowledging the destructive potentials of a 9.0 earthquake, other preparations have been ongoing in governmental circles for some time.
In 2011, then-Councilmember Roger Bush told me he was one of several dozen Pierce County officials that carried a satellite phone with him 24/7 as part of a program to ensure the continuity of government in the face of disaster. He told me that the program was peopled with more than just politicians, and included law enforcement officials, technical experts, and fire chiefs—all of whom were prepared to step into new governmental roles to maintain law and order.
“I, or someone like me, might have to step in and run the county jail in case of a wide-spread disaster and the warden and other correctional staff can’t get to the county jail,” Bush told me.
The same exists at the local fire houses. Then-Fire Chief Reggie Romines of Graham told me that in a Fukishima-like incident, if his firefighters can’t get to their duty stations he knew that the 30-40 Seattle and Tacoma firefighters who live in his district would report to Graham fire houses and work from there.
“We’ll all pitch in and do what we can. We all know we can count on each other— that’s who we are,” Romines said.
Similarly, Peggy Lovellford of the DEM said that she doesn’t know what she’ll be doing for Cascadia Rising.
“The uncertainty is part of the training, part of the exercise. I’ll be at home when the exercise begins, and my instructions are to follow our protocols for when I can’t get to work. That means I’ll be reporting to the Buckley Fire House, and be getting instructions from there. I can at least ride a bicycle to the Buckley station.”
Along those lines, the general public may not see much out of the ordinary during the Cascadia Rising exercise, which will only be conducted during daylight hours. Some simulated evacuations may be visible, but the primary focus will be at a command and simulation center established at Joint Base Lewis McChord, which will utilize over 1,600 Washington National Guard members. The key elements will be inter-agency communications, with a special emphasis on the coordination of field events using nothing but satellite phones—avoiding all cell phone use or the Internet since electricity will be non-existent in the Big One, except by generator.
“We want to see where our weaknesses are, “ said Patrick Massey of FEMA.
As part of Cascadia Rising, the Navy is expected to erect some kind of an emergency port facility in the Seattle-Everett area. It will replicate the construction of temporary docks, which will be the first method to receive in-coming supplies during the post-earthquake recovery and rebuild.
Oregon will conduct a parallel exercise to Cascade Rising, which is Washington-centric and focused on the Puget Sound basin. In addition, British Columbia will also undergo its own training event, called Coastal Zone Response 2016.
Even though the Cascadia Rising exercise will be huge and involve dozens of governmental agencies, in the event of a real 9.0, “The entire nation will have to respond,” said FEMA’s Patrick Massey.