Tag Archives: Seattle Fault

Earthquake: What will it take to get ready, and why should I prepare?

Store plenty of water. That’s my first bit of advice for earthquake preparedness. I suggest storing water for drinking — enough to last a week — and maybe some extra water for washing and cleaning.

If we’re going to prepare for an earthquake, let’s prepare for a big one. Then we’ll be ready for smaller ones or even severe storms with the potential to isolate us. Getting ready for an emergency can help reduce the anxiety of thinking about a long power outage, broken water pipes and other damage. Do what you can, then realize that recovery will come, though it could take time.

The 6.8-magnitude Nisqually quake, centered near Olympia in 2001, caused extensive damage to Highway 302 on the Kitsap Peninsula. But that quake could be considered small compared to what might result from a quake on the shallow Seattle fault. Kitsap Sun file photo
The 6.8-magnitude Nisqually quake, centered near Olympia in 2001, caused extensive damage to Highway 302 on the Kitsap Peninsula. But that quake could be considered small compared to what might result from a quake on the shallow Seattle fault.
Kitsap Sun file photo

If you would rather ignore the dangers, I guess that’s one option for dealing with this kind of anxiety. But it could be a costly approach, one ultimately filled with regret.

I recently had the privilege to be part of a team of reporters who wrote about the effects of a 7.2-magnitude earthquake along the Seattle fault. If you haven’t read the stories in the Kitsap Sun, I urge you to take a look at “The Danger Below Us.”

It may seem like a random number — 7.2 magnitude, large for any earthquake — but people need to understand that this earthquake would occur at or near ground level on a fault that runs through the center of Kitsap and King counties. That’s essentially right next door to hundreds of thousands of people.

Such an earthquake is not imaginary. It has happened before — long before any cities were built. Where the fault broke free, the land and seabed were raised upwards by more than 20 feet. Evidence is still visible at the south end of Bainbridge Island, where a submerged beach is now high and dry.

Restoration Point on Bainbridge Island was lifted more than 20 feet by an earthquake on the Seattle fault. Photo: Washington Department of Ecology
Restoration Point on Bainbridge Island was uplifted 20 feet by an earthquake on the Seattle fault.
Photo: Washington Department of Ecology

Most of us have heard concerns about the worrisome Cascadia subduction zone earthquake, which raised alarms after the New Yorker magazine described its potential effects. But for many residents of Puget Sound, a quake on the Seattle fault could be far worse, though probably less likely over the next 50 years.

The Kitsap Sun stories were based upon an earthquake scenario developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and presented to local governments in a “Draft Risk Report.” A separate scenario for a 6.7-magnitude quake was developed in 2005 by Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, which modeled the effects of fault rupture from Seattle through Bellevue to the east.

Shake map for Kitsap County (click to enlarge)
Shake map for Kitsap County (click to enlarge)

The death and destruction in either scenario is hard to imagine, and who wants to think about devastation in this seemingly peaceful part of the world? Keep in mind that even in a worst case, most people will survive to rebuild and go on with their lives, as they have in other parts of the world, including Japan. As we have learned from other areas, being prepared can make a real difference.

When I think about getting prepared, I begin with water. We cannot live without it. The preparedness list published on the Kitsap Sun’s website includes developing an emergency plan for your family, addressing structural problems with your house, learning first aid and several other things.

I was thrilled to hear about the attitudes of people in a Port Orchard neighborhood where families worked together to develop a neighborhood emergency plan. I learned a lot in the story by reporter Tristan Baurick. If you would like to help organize your neighborhood, Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management (PDF 373 kb) can help.

Reporter Ed Friedrich wrote about the potential damage to Navy facilities, and reporter Tad Sooter wrote about how businesses are coping with the risks of an earthquake.

Seattle fault

I wrote about the geology that leads to these great risks we are facing in a story called “Multiple geologic forces make region vulnerable to quakes.” I also wrote about an early-warning system being developed to give people a brief notice of severe shaking, which could be enough time to save lives.

In the matter of the early-warning system, President Obama’s proposed budget to Congress, released Tuesday, includes $8.2 million for the early-warning system. See the news release from Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Derek Kilmer.

A good explanation about how people might benefit from the early-warning system is provided by Richard Allen in a presentation Feb. 2 in Washington, D.C., called “The Resilience Summit.” This issue is discussed in a YouTube video from 7:40 to 14:00 minutes into the video.

Another video, below, provides additional details about the design of the early-warning system and how it would function in the Los Angeles region. Called Shake Alert, the project has its own website. The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network is a key part of the project.

How did one magazine article generate such a tsunami of public alarm?

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.”

Hazard maps are used by structural engineers to design building to withstand shaking. This map depicts maximum ground acceleration (measured in gravitational pull) predicted in a rare earthquake with a 2 percent chance of occurring in the next 50 years. Hazard maps of more likely earthquakes are similar but with less emphasis on the Seattle and subduction fault zones. Kitsap Sun graphic
Hazard maps are used by structural engineers to design buildings to withstand shaking. This map depicts maximum ground acceleration (measured in gravitational pull) predicted in a rare earthquake with a 2 percent chance of occurring in the next 50 years. // Kitsap Sun graphic

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.

During the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, many roads were damaged. Here, Janine Morris, right, and her daughter, Erin, 12, explore a section of Highway 302 near Victor in Mason County. Kitsap Sun file photo, 2001.
During the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, many roads were damaged. Here, Janine Morris, right, and her daughter, Erin, 12, explored a section of Highway 302 near Victor. // Kitsap Sun file photo, 2001.

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.

Tsunami video offers insight to West Coast residents

A dramatic video that shows Japan’s March 12 tsunami from ground level has received a lot of attention on YouTube, probably because of its shock value. Our hearts go out to the Japanese people. Meanwhile, I believe this video can offer important insights for those of us who live or visit ocean communities on the West Coast, such as Ocean Shores.

How much time would we have to get to higher ground after an earthquake? The video shows the water level rising rapidly, as the photographer goes up a stairway to get to higher ground. At the end of the video, six minutes in, the serenity of the street has been turned into chaos.

While I worry about coastal communities, where a tsunami is a likely threat, I’m also concerned about waterfront residents and visitors along the Puget Sound shoreline. Although the chance of a tsunami in Puget Sound may be less than on the coast, one could be triggered by an earthquake on the numerous faults that run through the sound, including the Seattle, Tacoma and South Whidbey faults. Earthquakes also may cause massive landslides that can create big waves when hitting the water.

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