“Subduction-zone earthquakes operate on the…[principle that] one enormous problem causes many other enormous problems.”
— Kathryn Schulz, The Really Big One
In her Pulitzer Prize–winning article “The Really Big One,” New Yorker staff writer Kathryn Schulz tells the story of the worst natural disaster in the history of North America. According to scientists, on or about January 26, 1700, a massive earthquake in the Pacific Northwest ripped a gash in the earth’s crust along a line from Vancouver Island in Canada south nearly six hundred miles into Northern California, causing massive devastation.
The geological record indicates that these “great earthquakes” (those with a magnitude of eight or higher) occur in this area of the Pacific Northwest about every five hundred years on average.
In “The Really Big One”, Schulz describes for us the implications of this revelation. When it comes, the next Really Big One could impact an area of 140,000 square miles and devastate major population centers like Seattle and Tacoma in Washington, and Portland, Eugene, and Salem in Oregon. Seven million people could be cast into this parallel universe, of which nearly 13,000 people could die and another 27,000 could be injured. When it happens, we would need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million.
The following excerpt is what we call a worst-case scenario:
"When the Cascadia earthquake begins, there will be… a cacophony of barking dogs and a long, suspended, what-was-that moment before the surface waves arrive…
Soon after that shaking begins, the electrical grid will fail, likely everywhere west of the Cascades and possibly well beyond. If it happens at night, the ensuing catastrophe will unfold in darkness… Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, canisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off…
Other, larger structures will also start to fail… across the region, something on the order of a million buildings will collapse…
The shaking from the Cascadia quake will set off landslides throughout the region—up to thirty thousand of them in Seattle alone… It will also induce a process called liquefaction, whereby seemingly solid ground starts behaving like a liquid, to the detriment of anything on top of it… Together, the sloshing, sliding, and shaking will trigger fires, flooding, pipe failures, dam breaches, and hazardous-material spills. Any one of these second-order disasters could swamp the original earthquake in terms of cost, damage, or casualties—and one of them definitely will.
Four to six minutes after the dogs start barking, the shaking will subside. For another few minutes, the region, upended, will continue to fall apart on its own.
Then the wave will arrive, and the real destruction will begin."
Never tell me the odds
The odds of a big Cascadia earthquake happening in the next fifty years are roughly one in three. The odds of the next Really Big One are roughly one in ten. Even those numbers do not fully reflect the danger—or, more to the point, how unprepared the Pacific Northwest is to face it.
We should pause for moment to take all of this in. The enormity of this breathtaking scenario makes it difficult to contemplate fully. But contemplate, we must.
And then, after we have contemplated for a while, somebody needs to get to work. I have an idea: how about we build a Pacific Northwest Cascadia Subduction Earthquake and Tsunami Response Plan? The PNCSETRP (as I like to call it) would be massive and unprecedented, nothing less than a comprehensive, proactive, integrated, and all-of-nation plan.
How about we build a Pacific Northwest Cascadia Subduction Earthquake and Tsunami Response Plan?Although it sounds complicated, all you really need to do is to put all the people who would be responsible for a Pacific Northwest Cascadia subduction earthquake and tsunami response in the middle of an imagined Cascadia subduction earthquake and tsunami to figure things out ahead of time, instead of in the fog of war. Thanks to Kathryn Schulz’s elegant scientific narrative we have an incredibly detailed imagined disaster to work with.
So, let’s do that now. Let’s imagine that it’s 2:35 p.m. on a rainy Saturday afternoon in March and the next Really Big One hits.
We need to think through exactly what that would look like.
We need to quantify the unprecedented surge that the crisis will bring. We need to understand, in as much fine-grained, colorful detail as possible, that enormous problem that causes so many other enormous problems. We need to list all of the issues that we—the United States and the world—would be dealing with as that Saturday afternoon turns into a long Saturday night. We need to think about the people—the seniors, the individuals with disabilities, the children and families—who would be trapped inside that parallel universe.
Instead of trying to think through these things then, we need to do it now, so that we know what we will tell them about when we are going to reach them. About how we are working across 140,000 square miles of affected area to rescue people from collapsed buildings, pump out the water, get power and cell phone service back, and clear the streets. About how we are providing shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million.
To be able to do these things then, we need to get to work now.
We must travel through the wormhole and into that parallel universe, to spend as much time as possible in the Pacific Northwest on that Saturday afternoon with those collapsed buildings, blocked roadways, stuck trains, trapped victims, dead and injured people, and debris in the streets. We must figure out everything we would have to do all at the same time, who is going to do it, and where we are going to get all of the stuff we will need to make it happen.
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but we are not doing this work today
Instead, in cities and states all over the Pacific Northwest, and the nation, disaster professionals sit around in small groups in carpeted conference rooms, using rational thought processes to write pieces of the plans about pieces of the job they think they own. And, by the way, these plans have been shown to work spectacularly well... in carpeted conference rooms.
There is no substitute for an integrated, all-of-nation planning process like the one described above. So why are we not doing it? Why do we instead sit in carpeted conference rooms with our cliques telling war stories, asking the same old questions, and speaking the same tired platitudes? Why, instead of spending time trying to understand the enemy, do we clutter our minds with process and unrealistic expectations—so that we are surprised, caught off guard, when the realities that the crisis inevitably brings don’t fit our processes or expectations?