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Damage from the 2001 Nisqually earthquake in Seattle. Photo: Kevin Galvin via FEMA.
Damage from the 2001 Nisqually earthquake in Seattle. Photo: Kevin Galvin via FEMA.

A huge earthquake is coming for the Pacific Northwest, and almost no one is prepared for it.

In a stunning tale from the New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz outlines how coastal communities in Washington and Oregon will fare during the devastating earthquake that has a one-in-ten chance of hitting the region in the next 50 years.

In an area called the Cascadia subduction zone, an oceanic plate is trying to slide underneath the continental North American plate, but it’s having a hard time. Right now, the plates aren’t budging, but in the next 50 years, there’s a one-in-three chance that the southern part of the plates will slip and a one-in-ten chance that the entire fault goes off at once.

The Cascadia subduction zone. Image via US Geological Survey
The Cascadia subduction zone. Image via US Geological Survey

Both would be bad, but if the second option happens, it could result in a 9.2 magnitude earthquake, liquefying solid land, causing houses to slide off their foundations and creating a hundred-foot tall wave in some areas.

There would be almost no escaping the ensuing devastation if you were warned, which you likely wouldn’t be since there’s no early warning system.

“When that tsunami is coming, you run,” chair of the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission Jay Wilson told Schulz. “You protect yourself, you don’t turn around, you don’t go back to save anybody. You run for your life.”

Japan, which sees plenty of earthquakes every year, has an alert system that automatically detects the first signals of an earthquake and opens firehouse doors, tells surgeons to put down the knife and bring trains to a halt. The Pacific Northwest is limited to “a vibrate-alert system,” according to Seaside, Ore. city planner Kevin Cupples. In other words, you’ll know an earthquake has hit when you feel the strong vibrations.

What would an earthquake damage?

“Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast,” FEMA’s Kenneth Murphy said. Here is more from The New Yorker piece:

In the Pacific Northwest, everything west of Interstate 5 covers some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people. When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America. Roughly three thousand people died in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. Almost two thousand died in Hurricane Katrina. Almost three hundred died in Hurricane Sandy. 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.

The full story is gripping, and terrifying. It details some of the zoning restrictions found in the potential disaster zone that may help save some people, but also exposes how vastly unprepared the area is for the inevitable disaster.

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