The world watched in horror as the tragedy unfolded in Japan on March 11, 2011. Thanks to the amazing technological prowess of Japan, we were able to see, from our living rooms, the walls of water – higher than many buildings, literally washing away entire towns. Waves tossed around cars, homes and people like they were minor inconveniences on its path of unimaginable destruction. Images that will be ingrained in my mind forever.
Without sounding arrogant, it takes a lot to impress me. I have watched crippling blizzards paralyze towns and pile-up cars on the interstate for days. I lived through the most active hurricane season in recorded history, I personally witnessed the wrath of Hurricane Katrina and Wilma as they pass directly over my house. I’ve walked through the debris of merciless tornadoes. But nothing in my entire life has amazed me more than what I watched afar, from a bleeding land many thousands of miles away.
It is my duty to protect lives. My job description requires me to warn people of damaging weather. The beauty of my profession, as a Meteorologist, is that I have the ability to see tornadoes, hurricane’s, blizzards and ice-storms coming – usually well ahead of the danger. Sure, tornadoes are less predictable, but we know if certain ingredients for such a storm exist, and hence have the ability to warn. We know that the ingredients for a magnitude 9.0 megathrust earthquake also exist. We just don’t know when. It could be tomorrow or it could be 300 years from now (leading experts say we have better than a 1 in 3 chance in the next 50 years). The devastation we all watched from our television sets will happen again, and the next time it occurs we may instead be watching it from our living rooms as we hold on for our dear lives. Unlike a severe thunderstorm warning, however, there will be no warning at all. An imminent earthquake of this type could make Katrina look like a bad hair day. The kicker is that many of us simply are not ready, I am the first to admit that even I am not ready.
I have lived in 10 states from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the desert to the tundra, from the tropics to the northwest, and in the 39 years of my life I have never experienced an earthquake. I’m a Meteorologist not a geophysicist, but I bet that similar laws governing what happens below the earth are akin to the equations of motions we use to describe the atmosphere above. I trust what the cutting edge scientists in the field of geology say. In the past 2 weeks I have read, listened to and reached out to many of these scientists, and there is no fuzzy math governing the physics.
The exact same situation we all witnessed in Japan will happen right here in the Pacific Northwest. Portland, Seattle and Vancouver are ticking time bombs. The only difference we face is that we are much less prepared than our counterparts across the Pacific.
I believe that studying history is important for many reasons. Perhaps the most obvious is to learn not only from historic failures but also from its successes. I posit the following question to you: Do you know what to do or where to go when the Cascadia Subduction Zone erupts? I don’t. I work and live downtown in high-rise buildings. Leading experts say that many of these buildings will be severely destroyed at best, and possibly subjected to complete collapse. And these buildings are the modern ones such as “Big Pink” A quick youtube search yields shocking video of Tokyo skyscrapers swaying from side-to-side – and Tokyo is probably the best equipped city with the highest seismic construction standards in the entire world.
So where do I go and what do I do when the 9.0 hits? I don’t know, do you? In all fairness to structural engineers; it wasn’t until the 1980s that our precious corner of the continent was labeled as “high risk” with the serendipitous findings of an active subduction zone just miles offshore from California to Canada. But I think it is imperative to immediately address this dangerous situation and identify and retrofit potentially at-risk buildings, schools, bridges and essential emergency epicenters such as hospitals and fire departments. Do you have a weeks supply of non-perishable food and water? Do you have a plan to meet-up with loved ones in a particular spot? I don’t.
The same type of earthquake and subsequent tsunami is coming to a town near you people, and we are decades behind the cities in Japan not only in planning but with solid infrastructure. I implore you to learn as much as you can about this ominous situation, devise a survival plan, demand from your political leaders some reassurance, but more importantly some action. Tell your family, friends and neighbors to do the same. We are simply running out of time. I recently heard one politician’s mumblings that “tensions are high right now in lieu of the Japanese tsunami and that emotions will quiet soon.” He also said that there is a real monetary issue at hand, that we simply cannot afford to do what is necessary to bring our seismic standards up to par. I find this sentiment reprehensible and say that we cannot afford to not beef up our standards and procedures. The cost to rebuild will be far greater than the cost to upgrade.
Here is a link to a web page providing a wealth of knowledge on the situation we all face. We are all in this together. http://www.crew.org/
An excellent description of what a 9.0 Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake means to the Pacific Northwest, what to do, and the likely impacts to our region can be found here.
I must also give credit for the image I used in this post to National Geographic. They have a new documentary “Countdown to Catastrophe” which I highly suggest watching.
I plan on learning more, becoming better prepared and making calls to our leaders. Do you?