It’s safe to say the “big one” is coming and we’re not prepared. For a state with the second-highest earthquake risk in the U.S., we’re not doing enough for seismic safety.
For decades geologists and seismologists have pointed to two oceanic tectonic plates extending from British Columbia to Northern California. Scientists have alerted anyone who will listen that pent-up pressure from this 700-mile subduction zone will eventually rupture. When it does, the Pacific Northwest can expect a quake between 8.0 and 9.2 on the Richter scale.
But that’s only part one of the disaster; part two is a tsunami that will hit coastal towns with waves up to 100 feet. Washington and Oregon could see more than 14,000 people killed, more than 30,000 injured.
It’s a guessing game when this catastrophe will happen; but as Gov. Jay Inslee said in January: “The science is clear that we have in our future a megaquake.”
Last year, a large-scale drill called Cascadia Rising imagined a worse-case scenario and put local, state, interstate, federal and international resources to the test. After the four-day exercise, state officials called their quake response “grossly inadequate.”
So Inslee tasked top state officials, ranging from the National Guard commander to the state school superintendent, to create a coordinated resilience plan.
Inslee instructed them to focus on low-cost measures. There was no budget to accompany their recommendations, so their report reads like a wish list – and it puts the onus on the public to be self-reliant.
Washington state’s Emergency Management Division, an agency that’s seen severe cuts the past few years, now recommends residents get a two-week supply of food and water, up from the previous three-day supply.
There will be more “Drop, cover and hold” drills in public schools and workplaces. (The annual Great Washington Shakeout is Oct. 19.) And look for information sessions like one in Tacoma Wednesday focused on families, older adults and people with disabilities.
Those measures are important, but none will prevent buildings from collapsing. Last month, Mexico experienced two massive quakes, one of them was the strongest earth quake ever to hit Mexico and killed hundreds, including 30 children crushed to death at school. Thirty-eight buildings collapsed in Mexico City and at least 550 others sustained serious structural damage.
That 8.2 magnitude earthquake should shake us up here in the South Sound and prompt further action. Retrofitting is expensive but could save thousands of lives.
Unfortunately, neither the political will – nor the money – in Olympia for serious seismic safety is available. Only one quake-related bill passed in the last legislative session. It wisely requires annual tsunami drills for schools in coastal communities.
If Inslee and the Legislature want real resiliency they can start by funding a long-term strategy. The 2018 Legislature could start by demanding vulnerable public structures be evaluated for retrofits, especially schools, hospitals and buildings that house first-responders. School quake drills should also be made mandatory. Take a cue from Orting School District and its annual lahar evacuation drills.
Recent natural disasters in Mexico City and Puerto Rico show what real devastation looks like: separated families, compromised communication, widespread power outages, destroyed roads, scarce fuel and other supplies, and overwhelmed first responders.
We can pay now or we can pay later, and we’ve seen what later looks like.
Learn and prepare
What: Getting Real About Earthquakes workshop hosted by Pierce County.
When: Wednesday, Oct. 11, 6:30 to 8 p.m.
Where: Evergreen State College – Tacoma campus, 1210 6th Ave.
Admission: Free, and no RSVP is required.