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

This weekend’s New Yorker story about the inevitable earthquake coming to destroy Seattle terrified plenty of people, but a few Seattle-area earthquake experts are assuring people that things probably won’t be as bad as the original article made it seem.

In an Ask Me Anything on Reddit today, questions on how Seattle would fare during the Really Big One were answered by three experts: John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network; Debbie Goetz of the Seattle Emergency Management Office; and Sandi Doughton, Seattle Times science writer.

One of the scariest aspects of Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker piece was the idea of a 100-foot wave sweeping through the city. Turns out that’s not the real concern for the Emerald City.

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.

“The tsunami won’t really be a factor in Seattle or Puget Sound,” Doughton wrote. “By the time the swell gets here, it will be pretty small. But the quake could trigger landslides here that cause localized swamping.”

Transportation routes are another major concern. While many bridges have been retrofitted to deal with the effects of an earthquake, hundreds are still vulnerable.

“Washington’s resilience plan estimates it could be months before all major transport routes are reopened, though emergency routes … will open up before that,” Doughton said. Bridge inspectors will be among the first responders, checking for small cracks that could lead to devastating failures soon after the quake.

With transportation down, supplies are going to be tight. Goetz recommends that residents keep a 7-to-10-day supply of food, water and essentials in case of a major earthquake, along with some supplies at work and in their car.

“Beyond supplies, I always encourage people to talk about their plans,” Goetz said, “especially around communication, which we know will be affected. Where will they be? How can they get back together? Where could they meet if not at home?”

She also suggests staying put once the quake starts.

“Getting on the roads will only create more congestion and depending on the damage to bridges and streets, you honestly may not get very far,” she said. “Smartest plan—take a protective action, keep yourself safe, check on others and help them afterwards.”

Cascadia subduction zone USGS
Image via Wikipedia/US Geological Survey

Schulz’s article contrasted the Pacific Northwest’s earthquake preparedness with precautions taken in Japan, which sees many more earthquakes. From better building codes to alarms that ring 90 seconds before a quake hits, Japan is ready. Vidale said a warning system is currently being tested for the Pacific Northwest, but stilling needs fine tuning and funding before it can be activated.

“We know how to do it, but for example, just last month in California, the way the calibration pulses are times fooled the system into thinking a large earthquake had just occurred,” Vidale wrote. “When big quakes happen only every few years, we cannot allow a system that generates a lot of false alarms to send signals to the public.”

Building codes are also lacking, and with Seattle’s building boom, there are plenty of high rises going up that could be unuseable after a quake.

“Seattle first began to factor quakes in its building code after a quake near Olympia in 1949,” Doughton said. “Bigger quakes didn’t begin to be factored in until the mid-1990s. Even today, the building code does not require consideration of how long the ground will shake, just how hard. Oregon is in much worse shape, because it didn’t even consider quakes at all until the 1990s.”

The experts generally worked to calm people, noting that the science in Schulz’s article was right, but “left an impression of much greater devastation (than) is anticipated to occur,” according to Vidale.

“I live here, and I personally wouldn’t advise anyone to stay away from this beautiful region because of earthquake risks,” Doughton said.

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