Red Cross: Start preparing now for Cascadia earthquake
When a magnitude-9 earthquake rocks the Pacific Northwest, few who feel it will have ever lived through anything like it before — and it won't be a trivial event.
That was a point that presenters at a "Prepare Out Loud" event at Tigard High School Tuesday evening, Sept. 26, wanted to impress on the hundreds in attendance. The threat of a major earthquake is omnipresent in the Cascadia subduction zone, it is very real and it is very serious.
The fault lies just off the Northwest coast — it stretches from southern British Columbia to northern California — where the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate meets the continental shelf. The last time it ruptured is believed to be Jan. 26, 1700, before the region was settled by Europeans and their descendants. The next time it will happen is unknown, and there will be little to no warning before it does.
"There's no way to predict when this will happen," said Mike Harryman, Oregon's state resilience officer and one of Tuesday night's speakers. "It could be in my lifetime or my kid's lifetime, but Mother Nature's going to do something eventually off that coast."
Steve Eberlein said geologists believe there have been 43 major earthquakes in the Cascadia subduction zone over the past 10,000 years — many of them involving a complete rupture of the fault. That pencils out to one about every 233 years, for a very rough average.
"No one can predict when the next one will be," Eberlein said. "All we know is we are technically overdue, and we have a lot of work to do to get ready for that next one."
Oregon encourages '2 Weeks Ready' preparedness
Eberlein works for the American Red Cross Cascades Region and lives in Portland. After surviving the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2004 in the Indian Ocean while living in Sri Lanka, he returned to his home state of Oregon and created the Prepare Out Loud program, which seeks to educate Oregonians about the dangers of a Cascadia quake and how to get ready for one.
And that's no simple feat.
"About three years ago, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management kind of made a fundamental shift," Harryman said. "Traditionally, you would hear states or the Red Cross talk about having a 72-hour kit for an emergency either at home, at work or in your car. And based on the data that we collected, scientific data from the Cascadia subduction zone, how hard it's going to shake the state and break a lot of our systems that we're dependent upon — our roads, our water, our natural gas lines and things like that — we felt we needed to kind of change that dynamic from 72 hours to a two-week (preparedness)."
He admitted, "That's not been easy, because it's not easy to prepare. I have a family of four, and four people for 14 days of water, that's a lot of water. So we have to think of creative ways of doing it."
What Eberlein suggests is that people take a methodical approach to putting together their supplies.
Residents of the Portland area, like other places within the immediate area of effect of a Cascadia quake, are now urged to keep the equivalent of 42 meals per person on hand, ready nourishment in case "the Big One" hits and they need to survive on their own for a while. Eberlein said he encourages people who find that number daunting to make it manageable, perhaps picking up one nonperishable meal to add to their stockpile every time they go grocery shopping. (If it still seems out of reach, he also noted that what people should eat first in case of an earthquake is the food — fruits and vegetables, breads, leftovers, and even meat and fish — that is already in the kitchen.)
Water, as Harryman mentioned, is another basic necessity. Emergency management officials recommend each person have at least one gallon per day available for drinking, cooking, bathing, brushing teeth and other needs — meaning 14 gallons per person, under Oregon's "2 Weeks Ready" guidelines. Eberlein said empty soda bottles make great containers for water and can be stored indefinitely, although he doesn't recommend using milk jugs because of the difference in the quality and durability of the plastic.
Preparation is partially practice as well
The list of supplies Eberlein, Harryman and other experts recommend is voluminous. But beyond those material assets, people need to think about what the actual experience of a Cascadia quake will be like, and what they and their families are going to do in the minutes, hours and days after it strikes, Eberlein said.
"I know you're all cheering for a June earthquake," Eberlein said to laughter. "It's the one we imagine, that really 'inconvenient' June-6th-at-7-in-the-morning earthquake, on a Friday, right after I went shopping — ugh. No. We need to get ready for the 3 a.m. earthquake in November. That's the one you need to start imagining. Start imagining the one you really don't want — the one that's going to be cold."
Statistically, most people are likely to be in one of three places when the Big One hits, Eberlein said: at home, at work or in the car.
The moments during an earthquake will almost certainly be confusing, even for someone who knows what to expect. The ground will shake so violently that pieces of furniture will be flung around like umbrellas in a windstorm, as Eberlein poetically put it. Windows will shatter, the power will fail, gas and water lines may break, cabinetry will collapse and fall, fire sprinklers may activate, airbags may deploy. Most of the Portland area's bridges are not rated to withstand an earthquake. Many of its buildings aren't, either. Structural damage will be widespread and immense. It will be loud. And it will last what feels like forever.
About midway through his presentation, Eberlein abruptly declared an earthquake drill in the Deb Fennell Auditorium at Tigard High School. Audience members dropped to the floor and covered their necks and heads, while the sounds of alarms, sirens, smashing glass and masonry, and deep bass rumbling blared over the sound system. Only once the sounds ended did Eberlein invite people to return to their seats.
How long, he asked the audience, did they think their drill had lasted?
"That was one minute — and the earthquake we should expect, it's going to be four to six minutes of intense shaking," Eberlein said, to audible gasps and groans.
Eberlein strongly encourages people to practice what they will do in the event of an earthquake. It's an awkward activity and it isn't much fun, he acknowledged, but repetition is the best form of conditioning.
"Your brain is a lot dumber during an earthquake," said Eberlein, pointing to a rendering of the human brain showing the amygdalae — often colloquially called the "fear centers" of the brain. The rest of the brain, the parts that govern complex and critical thinking, will shut down during the quake, he warned. Instinct and emotion will take over. He showed video clips from the quake in Japan of supermarket employees rushing to protect fragile merchandise instead of taking cover, while a shopper stood by in apparent paralysis, too shocked and overwhelmed to do anything, and of businessmen rushing out of their office building onto the street even as pieces of the building facade fell on the sidewalk around them.
Eberlein went over three basic scenarios for when the quake hits, based on where someone is. If you are awake and at home, at work, or out and about, he said, follow the basic three-step instruction: drop, find cover and hold on. If you are in the car, the approach is different: find a safe place to pull over, park the car and lean your seat back as far as you can. If you are in bed, the strategy is simplest: cover your face and head with a pillow and try not to fall off the bed, which will likely end up bouncing around the bedroom or studio for the duration of the quake. In all three cases, the main idea is to minimize the risk of serious injury and ride out the shaking until it stops.
Attendees urged to talk about preparing
One last crucial part of preparation, Eberlein said, is communication.
"We stop preparing when it's time to have the conversation about preparedness," Eberlein said. "This is where we fall down. … You have to actually choose to sit down across from your partner and say, 'Sweetheart, what are we going to do if I'm at work and you're at home and the kids are in their three different schools, when we have a 9.0 earthquake? What are we going to do?' People don't want to have that conversation. People would rather watch 'Seinfeld' any night of the week than have that conversation — so they put it off. But if you don't have that conversation, you're not getting ready."
Eberlein urged people to make plans with their families, establish what he called a "wrong-side-of-the-bridge buddy" — for a Westside resident, someone who lives east of the Willamette River with whom they can get together in case they are caught on the other side from home — and designate an out-of-state emergency contact, as phone and internet services will almost certainly be knocked out by a quake and could remain inoperative at worst or unreliable at best for weeks or more.
While Prepare Out Loud events are being held throughout the state, Eberlein said the strategy of outreach relies on the people who attend them passing on that information to their own social networks.
"First of all, talk about the things you've learned tonight," Eberlein told the audience. "Start talking to your neighbors. Start talking to your family. Start talking to your PTA. Start talking to your teacher. Talk, talk, talk, and show people what you're doing."
Resources to prepare for major quake
As Harryman said, there is no shortage of resources intended to help individuals, families and businesses prepare for the Big One. One of the most comprehensive and relevant is Prepare! A Resource Guide, published by the American Red Cross Cascades Region. It can be found online at
Among the supplies Eberlein recommends having on hand:
• Shelf-stable food, enough to last two weeks for each person
• Water, 14 gallons per person for a two-week supply
• Sturdy shoes, knotted together and kept beside or under the bed
• Flashlights or headlamps, at least one of which should be in the bedroom
• Tools, including but not limited to a wrench, a multitool and a crowbar
• First aid kit, with supplies including bandages, antiseptics and rubbing alcohol
• Medications, especially a stockpile of prescription medicine
• Pet food and supplies, enough to last two weeks
• Fire extinguishers, including at least one that can be shared with neighbors
• Blankets, especially thermal blankets in case of cold weather
• Tarpaulin, for use in shelter or catching rainwater
• Rope, for various uses, including tarp-rigging
• Buckets, including at least two fashioned into toilets (for different types of waste)
• Toilet paper, enough to last several weeks
• Vital documentation and records, photocopied and laminated if possible
• Cash, with bills in small denominations