Our Opinion: Time is now to prepare for big quake
Three years ago, Kathryn Schulz did us all a huge favor. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist penned a story for The New Yorker about the effects of a devastating earthquake off the Coast of Oregon.
Her article, published in the magazine's July issue, clocked in at just over 6,000 words but a two-sentence passage, near the top, got the most attention:
"By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable. Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA's Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, "Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast."
The "toast" quote got picked up by the national media and the story, which netted Schulz another Pulitzer, created regional aftershocks which could be felt the rest of the year, as government agencies, non-profits and news organization churned out advice on how to prepare for "the big one."
Last week, a trio of authors for the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries sounded another wake-up call. John Bauer, William Burns and Ian Madin can't match Schultz's deft writing style or fluid narrative flow, but they dropped some serious data that wasn't available to the journalist.
Their study, released Thursday, offers another chance for us focus on a catastrophic event that is not a matter of "if" but "when."
Using tools that weren't available even two years ago, the researchers were able to match soil conditions, building characteristics and demographic data to come up with details that went well beyond analogies to burnt bread. And, they are not pretty.
As the Portland Tribune's Steve Law reported last Thursday, researchers found that a magnitude 9 earthquake centered off the Oregon Coast would cause tens of thousands of severe injuries and deaths in the Portland area.
"In Portland alone, the study calculates 119 to 896 immediate deaths from a major Cascadia earthquake, depending on when it occurs, plus hundreds to thousands more life-threatening injuries and people requiring hospitalization," he wrote.
Even those who escape without injury will be impacted, thousands of residents will be displaced from their homes and the region faces tens of billions of dollars in building damage. And the report also emphasizes that it's not just people living west of I-5 who should be prepared. "No community will be unharmed," according to the study. In Portland, for example, up to 900 people could die and another 3,650 require hospitalization.
So, once again, a disturbing document offers an opportunity for us to respond. But how? Here are some ideas.
Think like a Boy Scout:As individuals we must adopt the Boy Scout creed and "be prepared" at home and work, and that means going beyond stashing a flashlight, tarp and case of bottled water in the garage. The regional office of the American Red Cross has various tools to help you plan. Check them out at redcross.org/local/oregon/preparedness.
Be neighborly:Even if your supplies are safely stored, they won't last long if you need to come to the aid of all your neighbors. PREP, a coalition of metro-area first-responders and neighborhood associations, can help guide those who want to organize at the community level. Learn more at preporegon.org.
Identify critical facilities:The study did not identify the seismic resilience of public buildings, but local governments should do so — and focus on fire stations, which are the logical spot for first responders to gather and community members to look for help.
Learn from New Zealand:Seven years ago, a magnitude 6.3 quake rocked Christchurch New Zealand, which has a similar topography to the Pacific Northwest. The shocks leveled scores of buildings and killing 185 people. But, the damage could have been much worse had the government not been proactive a decade earlier and reinforced hundreds of public schools. Although the earthquake occurred during a school day, there were no fatalities in school buildings. What's more, the New Zealand government provides earthquake coverage on every homeowner policy, which was key to the region's residents' ability to rebuild. And, the New Zealand government offered financial help to small businesses following the quake to allow them to resume operations.
As we've seen in other parts of the country, it's easy to put off the costly preparation for a disaster that likely won't happen tomorrow, only to find that all those tomorrows suddenly become today. But as individuals and communities, we must take advantage of heightened public awareness to move forward on such plans. Last week's report offers us just such a chance. We should seize it.