I am still baffled, as are the folks at the University of Washington’s Seismology Lab, why people freaked out over the earthquake article, titled “The Really Big One,” published this month in New Yorker magazine.
Could it be that Northwest residents were unaware or had forgotten about the risk of earthquakes in this area until a national magazine called attention to the problem?
Was it the lack of credible details about earthquake risks in the original article, which included this quote from an emergency-management official: “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”
Or maybe it was the rapid spread of information via social media and the huge number people living in other parts of the country who texted, tweeted and inundated Facebook with worries about their relatives in the Pacific Northwest.
“I don’t really know what it was,” said Bill Steele, my longtime contact at the UW’s Seismology Lab. “We are a bit baffled by it. There is nothing really new.”
Although the author, Kathryn Schultz, left out specifics about which areas might be affected more than others, she did tell a compelling — and fairly accurate — story about what could happen when the North America plate breaks free of the Juan de Fuca plate, which is sliding underneath it.
I was pleased to see that she came back this week with a follow-up article describing where the greatest shaking would occur and which areas would be at greatest risk from a tsunami unleashed by slippage along the Cascadia subduction zone. She also suggests steps that people can take to protect themselves and their property — something I have always felt is a mandatory part of any story I write about earthquakes. Review a webpage put together by the Kitsap Sun.
I’ve been very fortunate to have worked as a news reporter during a time when many important discoveries were made in Northwest seismology. I accompanied researchers digging in swamps, riverbanks and man-made trenches, where they found traces of ancient earthquakes. That work and much more comprises a body of evidence across many disciplines that helps us understand how bad our “big one” could be.
In 1999, I paused from covering individual discoveries about earthquakes to write a story for the Kitsap Sun focusing on a few of the researchers and their key findings. We called the story “Finding Fault: 13 Years of Discoveries.”
I can’t begin to recount all the stories I’ve written about earthquakes through the years, but I do recall warning people a few years ago to get prepared after the massive Japanese earthquake made headlines across the the globe (Kitsap Sun, March 11, 2011):
“While Japan struggles to recover from one of the greatest earthquakes in world history, West Coast seismologists are warning that a quake just like it could occur at any time off the Washington and Oregon coasts.
“In broad-brush terms, ‘the two earthquakes are very similar,’ said John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismograph Network at the University of Washington. ‘As a first guess, what might happen here is what happened there.’
Of course, we have had our own earthquakes that should give us plenty of reason to get prepared. The 6.8-magnitude Nisqually earthquake on Feb. 28, 2001, occurred in the Puget Sound region and served as a powerful wakeup call for many people.
The Nisqually quake was called the “miracle quake” because nobody was killed, although one man died from a heart attack that could have been related to the event. About 400 people were injured and damage estimates ranged up to $4 billion. (U.S. Geological Survey)
In the Puget Sound region, the shaking from the Nisqually quake could be something like area residents will experience in a Cascadia subduction-zone quake, though shaking from a subduction quake is expected to last longer, depending on how much of the plate breaks free. Things will not be the same in all places, and communities closest to the Olympic Mountains might experience the most damage from a subduction quake.
Five years after the Nisqually quake, Phyllis Mann, who was director of Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management at the time, was still wondering why many people were not prepared for an earthquake in Kitsap County.
“Kitsap has never depended on the federal government as part of its plan,” Phyllis told me in a Kitsap Sun story published Feb. 28, 2006. “The federal government can’t be with us the day of the disaster. With the exception of the military, which is part of our community, you can’t count on the feds early on.”
Mann used our interview to direct pointed questions at Kitsap County residents:
“Why aren’t you ready? What is it going to take? We keep asking this question and finding out that people aren’t prepared. Where is your food and water for three days? (A week is the latest recommendation.) Where are your reunion plans? Is it my responsibility as the county emergency manager to make sure everyone does it?”
The New Yorker article failed to mention an earthquake threat that should be of equal concern to residents of the Puget Sound area. You may have heard of the Seattle fault, which runs from Seattle across Bainbridge Island and Central Kitsap to Hood Canal.
Although the frequency of huge earthquakes on the Seattle fault appear to be less than those along the Cascadia subduction zone, we must not forget that a quake on the Seattle fault about 1,100 years ago lifted up the south end of Bainbridge Island by 21 feet and created a tsunami that inundated shorelines now occupied by people. By contrast, a tsunami coming from the ocean after a subduction quake might raise the water level quickly in Puget Sound but probably no higher than what we see with daily tides.
In a way, the Seattle fault put the Kitsap Peninsula on the map with a red bull’s-eye, which I wrote about five years ago. See Kitsap Sun, May 8, 2010, along with the map on this page.
Bill Steele told me that he is sure that Kenneth Murphy, regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, regrets saying, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.” That may be a good “operating assumption” for an agency trying to plan for the worse possible emergency, but it is not a very good description of what seismologists predict by modeling various scenarios.
Bill said many people failed to read the New Yorker article carefully and took the comment to mean that most of Western Washington would be hit with a 50-foot wall of water — something that could not be further from the truth.
“The good news for us is that we have a pretty good 10,000-year history of what happened on the fault,” Bill said. “We know how the shaking will be distributed.” Again, look at the hazard map on this page and note the strip of red along the coast.
While many earthquake experts are surprised by the reaction to the New Yorker article, it has accomplished one goal of those who understand the risks: getting people to create earthquake kits, secure homes on their foundations and other things that could help prevent damage and get people through the emergency.
“You have to take your hat off to the author,” Bill told me, “because she got a lot of people thinking. It is not like the New Yorker has that many subscriptions.”
Emergency managers may be studying the cascading events triggered by the New Yorker article, including the initial publication, the ripples running through social media and the public alarm that rose up and eventually died down.
Directing public concern into action is what folks like Bill Steele and others are doing right now. Check out the video in the player below for Bill’s appearance on “New Day Northwest,” and visit the webpage of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network for basic information and scheduled discussions about earthquake risks. One public forum is scheduled for Tuesday at the University of Oregon, and other forums are under consideration at the UW.