Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I Slept Through the Big One

311 years ago today, a so-called "great earthquake" struck the coastal region of the United States Pacific Northwest. Here's my post from last year explaining some of the details of why we think we know this; I'm not going to rewrite it here. However, this year's anniversary is somewhat special for another reason: Oregon conducted its first "shakeout" to encourage preparedness for the inevitable next great quake at 10:15 this morning.

I slept through it.

Unfortunately, metaphorically speaking, so did public awareness. @GlacialTill pointed out earlier that many members of his geology department weren't even aware of it. I was aware of it, and its coincidence with the anniversary, but it was sort of a peripheral awareness, something to which I wasn't paying attention. As I mentioned to him, this is our first such event, so expectations shouldn't be too high. On the other hand, I see my own complacent attitude toward the exercise as cautionary and a little shaming: if a person who is pretty well informed and concerned about this issue is essentially ignoring the shakeout, how can he expect that the general public will catch on? As it turns out, slightly more than 1% of Oregonians are reporting their participation.

So in the spirit of trying to do better next time, here are some links, resources and commentary. The official homepage is here, and the graphic at the bottom claims "Over 37,000 participants." Of particular interest to me are the instructions for how to react at the onset and for the duration of a quake (and the page upon which these instructions are apparently based, with more detail and explanation).

Unfortunately, I think the biggest failure during this first attempt was the lack of media coverage. As I commented to GlacialTill, I remember quite a few cursory articles last fall when the drill was announced. I thought about writing up a post then, but decided to wait until it was closer with the assumption I would be reminded by news releases. I know I've seen at least one article on the event during the last week, but I can't find it now. An article from KVAL (which I do skim over) shows up in Google- though not my RSS- but the link goes to a generic search page with no results. There have been a few articles and press releases, but not in places where I might have seen them without an intentional search. For example, despite my general contempt for press releases, this one at Newswire is very well done, in my opinion. (Oregon State University source is apparently here, with some links I haven't followed yet.) This one, from Portland's Fox affiliate, is shallow and cursory, but at least it's something. A brief at Medford's News Tribune notes the event... in this morning's edition. This seems like a day late to me, at least, but again, it's something.

I don't want to point fingers here- I think it would be wrong-headed and counterproductive. Further, as I implied above, I do not hold myself unaccountable. Between one route and another, I estimate I get somewhat fewer than a thousand readers a day. This is certainly a situation where a trivial amount of effort on my own part could have- likely would have- made a significant and substantive difference. The Medford article claims that 24,000 participants were anticpated, so the actual number tallied thus far- which may increase- is better than 50% higher than expected.


I don't think Oregonians, Washingtonians and British Columbians have fully grasped the disruption we're talking about here. Roads, water, power, airports, hospitals, food distribution and all sorts of other physical and social infrastructure that we take for granted are likely to be knocked out for weeks, or, at the very best, functioning at very low levels of efficiency. Are you ready for that? Have you really thought about what that means?

It could strike in the next few minutes. It might not strike within the lifetimes of children born today. We don't know. To say it becomes more likely as time goes on, I think, would be misleading: seismologists and structural geologists are constantly reassessing their understandings of how stress and strain are relieved and distributed at any given moment and through time. For example, the recently discovered "slow quakes" of the PNW (that article is also a pretty good back-grounder) are still mostly mysterious. Do they concentrate strain and make a great quake more likely, or relieve strain and make one less likely? We don't know.

Given the unknowns, the potential consequences, and relatively low hassle and cost of being prepared, it seems obvious to me that being prepared is clearly preferable. As I said in last year's post, there is some good news here. I don't feel bleak about the situation. But I do feel we could be doing better.

As I looked back over the above to proofread for obvious errors, one sentence jumped out at me: "This is certainly a situation where a trivial amount of effort on my own part could have- likely would have- made a significant and substantive difference." I earnestly hope and pray you don't recall that sentence as you huddle in the rubble with your family, wondering when help will arrive.

Followup: Glacial Till, a geology student in Portland, and Geology (Andrew Alden) have posted on The Shakeout as well. Both mention, as I forgot to, that British Columbia also conducted a shakeout. Glacial Till notes that the reported participation in BC is 460,000. Wikipedia says the population of that province is about 4.5 million, so that's a 10% participation rate, even though this is their first such event as well. C'mon, Oregon. We can do better. And Washington? You might want to come along next year.

Followup 2: I was half expecting this would get some after-the-fact coverage, despite there being effectively no coverage ahead of time. The Portland Tribune chimes in with the first such article I've seen, and I'll post any similar reports here as I come across them.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link!

I was just as surprised to see that Washington didn't participate. Maybe they think the quake will skip their fair state and only nail us and B.C. lol

Helena Mallonee said...

I was also really surprised to see that Washington participate.
They may be lulled into a false sense of preparedness, after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. Unfortunately, that was only a 6.8, and any major Cascadia earthquakes will be more severe.