If you spend any time on Facebook, and especially if you live in the Pacific Northwest like I do, you’ve probably seen the recent New Yorker article called, “The Really Big One.” If you aren’t sure what it’s about, it has the nightmare-inducing subtitle: “An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.”
Whether you’re living on Denial Island with me (I live on a hill!) or are already looking at jobs in other states, this article has caused quite the stir from Portland to Seattle. If you haven’t read the article because you are smugly enjoying a glass of lemonade in a state where shit like this is not about to go down, then I would like to summarize it for you so you’ll understand what the rest of us are freaking out about.
So, what is this thing I should be pooping my drawers about?
It’s called the Cascadia subduction zone, and it’s going to kill you.
Take your hands and hold them palms down, middle fingertips touching. Your right hand represents the North American tectonic plate, which bears on its back, among other things, our entire continent, from One World Trade Center to the Space Needle, in Seattle. Your left hand represents an oceanic plate called Juan de Fuca, ninety thousand square miles in size. The place where they meet is the Cascadia subduction zone. Now slide your left hand under your right one. That is what the Juan de Fuca plate is doing: slipping steadily beneath North America. When you try it, your right hand will slide up your left arm, as if you were pushing up your sleeve. That is what North America is not doing. It is stuck, wedged tight against the surface of the other plate.
What the writer means is this: take your hands and hold them palms down, middle fingertips touching. Then take one hand and use it to slam the other hand in a car door. That’s what’s going to happen to Seattle.
How bad is this thing supposed to be?
FEMA projects that nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. Another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, and the agency expects that it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million. “This is one time that I’m hoping all the science is wrong, and it won’t happen for another thousand years,” Murphy says.
No offense, Kenneth Murphy from FEMA, but you are not invited to my next dinner party. One way ticket to Bummer Town, with Kenneth Murphy at the wheel. Did you forget that I live on a hill, sir?!
But things are cool right now, right?
The Pacific Northwest sits squarely within the Ring of Fire. Off its coast, an oceanic plate is slipping beneath a continental one. Inland, the Cascade volcanoes mark the line where, far below, the Juan de Fuca plate is heating up and melting everything above it. In other words, the Cascadia subduction zone has, as Goldfinger put it, “all the right anatomical parts.” Yet not once in recorded history has it caused a major earthquake—or, for that matter, any quake to speak of.
Sounds good! I’m going to go hang it out in my glass shack where I make my own knives and raise a bee colony. Now where are my flip flops and culottes…
…We now know that the Pacific Northwest has experienced forty-one subduction-zone earthquakes in the past ten thousand years. If you divide ten thousand by forty-one, you get two hundred and forty-three, which is Cascadia’s recurrence interval: the average amount of time that elapses between earthquakes. That timespan is dangerous both because it is too long—long enough for us to unwittingly build an entire civilization on top of our continent’s worst fault line—and because it is not long enough. Counting from the earthquake of 1700, we are now three hundred and fifteen years into a two-hundred-and-forty-three-year cycle.
I don’t math. Sorry. But to my glass-half-full eyes this looks terrific! Now, I suppose you could go glass-half-empty and focus on the fact that this means it could happen anytime, but I LALALALALALALALALALALA CAN’T HEAR YOU.
Shit. Will there be any kind of warning?
The first sign that the Cascadia earthquake has begun will be a compressional wave, radiating outward from the fault line. Compressional waves are fast-moving, high-frequency waves, audible to dogs and certain other animals but experienced by humans only as a sudden jolt…When the Cascadia earthquake begins, there will be, instead, a cacophony of barking dogs and a long, suspended, what-was-that moment before the surface waves arrive.
Do you know what kind of dog I have, Science? I have a 14-pound Pekingese with a bark that sounds like an old woman smothering a cough in church. I am doomed.
Oh my God oh my God oh my God. Then what?
Soon after that shaking begins, the electrical grid will fail, likely everywhere west of the Cascades and possibly well beyond. If it happens at night, the ensuing catastrophe will unfold in darkness. In theory, those who are at home when it hits should be safest; it is easy and relatively inexpensive to seismically safeguard a private dwelling. But, lulled into nonchalance by their seemingly benign environment, most people in the Pacific Northwest have not done so. That nonchalance will shatter instantly. So will everything made of glass. Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, cannisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off—or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward. Unmoored on the undulating ground, the homes will begin to collapse.
Darkness. Glass shattering like my nonchalance. Walking refrigerators. I need to memorize the code to the gun safe immediately.
Ok. So I just need to survive the earthquake, right?
Together, the sloshing, sliding, and shaking will trigger fires, flooding, pipe failures, dam breaches, and hazardous-material spills. Any one of these second-order disasters could swamp the original earthquake in terms of cost, damage, or casualties—and one of them definitely will. Four to six minutes after the dogs start barking, the shaking will subside. For another few minutes, the region, upended, will continue to fall apart on its own. Then the wave will arrive, and the real destruction will begin.
GOD DAMN IT.
But as long as I keep my family safe, that’s the most important thing. Don’t you agree, Science?
Depending on location, they will have between ten and thirty minutes to get out. That time line does not allow for finding a flashlight, tending to an earthquake injury, hesitating amid the ruins of a home, searching for loved ones, or being a Good Samaritan. “When that tsunami is coming, you run,” Jay Wilson, the chair of the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission (OSSPAC), says. “You protect yourself, you don’t turn around, you don’t go back to save anybody. You run for your life.”
Dear Jay Wilson’s partner and children: you’re going to want to make sure you’ve got a survival plan. STAT.
Harsh. What about our senior citizens —
“We can’t save them,” Kevin Cupples says. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll go around and check on the elderly.’ No. We won’t.”
…Um…But certainly the children will —
The last person I met with in the Pacific Northwest was Doug Dougherty, the superintendent of schools for Seaside, which lies almost entirely within the tsunami-inundation zone. Of the four schools that Dougherty oversees, with a total student population of sixteen hundred, one is relatively safe.
…At an elementary school in the community of Gearhart, the children will be trapped. “They can’t make it out from that school,” Dougherty said. “They have no place to go.” On one side lies the ocean; on the other, a wide, roadless bog. When the tsunami comes, the only place to go in Gearhart is a small ridge just behind the school. At its tallest, it is forty-five feet high—lower than the expected wave in a full-margin earthquake. For now, the route to the ridge is marked by signs that say “Temporary Tsunami Assembly Area.” I asked Dougherty about the state’s long-range plan. “There is no long-range plan,” he said.
I’ve started to panic. Is there anything else I should know?
…The figures I cited earlier—twenty-seven thousand injured, almost thirteen thousand dead—are based on the agency’s official planning scenario, which has the earthquake striking at 9:41 A.M. on February 6th.
Huh. On my kids’ birthday. Guess I’ll just have to add “cake” to the list when we’re looting our local Safeway.
Have a great summer, fellow Pacific Northwesterners! Stay away from the beach forever!