Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Well, Hello Again, and Quake Preparedness

I make no apologies. This summer has been brutally hot. I don't cope well with heat, and thinking is one of my most impaired abilities. But we had our first rain in 89 days over the weekend, and it's been somewhat cooler since Saturday. So time to get back on the blog.

One of the big stories over the summer, if you missed it, was from Kathryn Schulz in New Yorker Magazine, on the coming Great Cascadia Quake. One of the political blogs I follow had a post from earlier today, after catching the article a month later. Below is the email I've spent much of the afternoon composing, which I just sent the author.

You're more than a month behind on finding this, but no matter. I'm glad it's catching eyes outside the PNW, where I live, and the geological community, of which I am a part. Most of us felt the article was more or less accurate, but overwrought, sensationalist, and most of all, fatalistic. The fact is, running through some simple calculations, the estimated chance of dying in such an event is about 1 in 1000. The chance of injury is about 3 in 1000. So the vast majority of us will ride it out unscathed- in fact the numbers are dis-proportionally higher for the coast, and lower for those of us in the Willamette Valley, the latter being where most of Oregon's population lives, works, and goes to school.

Given that, I was disappointed, first, by Schultz' lack of discussion of basic preparation measures, most of which are cheap and easy, and could be largely addressed in an afternoon's shopping trip. Namely, water, food that doesn't require preparation other than a can-opener, pet supplies if applicable, radio, flashlight, batteries, first aid kit, and so on. These are non-disaster specific, and can be useful during any sort of disruption, of any duration. The problem here is that our utilities and other infrastructure are likely to be unusable for months after a great quake, with full recovery taking years to a decade or more, so I describe the situation as "being ready for a 2-4 week no-frills camp-out,with no warning." (Following that relatively short period, presuming we don't have another GWB as president, emergency response will take off a lot of the self-reliance pressure) Put like that, it's easy to imaging how to prepare. But seeing it as "Everything west of I-5 will be toast," well, Christ, how do you prepare for that!? As I indicated above, fatalism is perhaps the biggest danger we face in this situation.

Second, there are a few structural measures that most homeowners in the region seem to be largely unaware of. The easiest is to firmly strap down the water heater. Assuming the house survives, this will assure a relatively large reservoir of potable water, one of the most important components of riding this beast out. Another, likely the most expensive, is to bolt wood-framed houses to the foundation, to make sure they don't fall off it. My understanding is that this is the most important measure, but it costs a few thousand dollars. However, given house prices, this is typically around 1 to 1 1/2 percent of their value, and while not a guarantee, most likely assures a house will ride out a quake and remain habitable. Which, not incidentally, would make the "camp-out" a lot easier to endure. I've also seen friends' posts about cross-bracing structural members in the attic and walls, which is supposed to dampen the oscillations. However, I'm a geologist, not a carpenter or engineer, so I don't really know. Securing large objects (e.g. book cases, refrigerators and so on) to walls can prevent injuries inside, as otherwise, they're likely to fall over.

Third, Schultz' portrayal of States' and smaller government agencies' preparation and response plans is terribly lopsided. The magnitude of expenditures needed is certainly in the hundreds of billion dollars range, and may reach trillions. There simply no way to retrofit all the things that need it in less than decades- which we likely have before the next great quake. However, slowly but surely, it is happening. I spend most of my waking life just off the Oregon State University Campus, and at any given time, there are one or two buildings closed for a couple of years for seismic refits. All new construction (and there is a lot of it right now) is required to meet strict seismic codes. K-12 schools across the state are a high priority, but again, costs make that slow. Nevertheless, that too is happening, though you'd never know it from the article. Public facilities such as hospitals, police and fire stations, and government offices, at least here in Benton County, have been retrofitted to be occupiable- that is, usable- following a quake, so they can serve as shelters, organization and command centers, aid stations, and so on. (An easier seismic target is "survivable," which means the building is unlikely to collapse or otherwise kill/injure occupants, but is less likely to be safely used or occupied afterwards. This is often the target for education infrastructure.)

The last parenthetical reminds me of a common joke among geology-types: "Earthquakes don't kill people. Buildings kill people." The upshot is, we can fix the buildings so they don't, or are much less likely to.

So the short version is that Schultz' piece is accurate, except in terms of omission. She left out an awful lot of important information which, instead of panicking PNW residents, could have spurred thoughtful reflection on their part of what they could do now to be better prepared in the aftermath. Initially, I was quite irritated by the article, but over the last month or so, I've seen a ramp-up in awareness and people asking questions, in a way I haven't since the Tohoku quake in March of 2011. In addition, I understand she has written a follow-up article in the same magazine, where she does cover much of the above discussion. I haven't read that one yet, but I'm looking forward to it. I was quite upset by Willamette Valley folks asking about life rafts and jackets to survive the coming tsunami. (Here, we're at about 240 feet elevation. Even in Portland, where there's still tidal influence in the rivers, very little effect is expected from the tsunami. Shaking, is, of course, a very different matter.)

Thanks for slogging through my verbosity, but this is a set of information I've been wildly pushing to get out since the article was published. Please feel free to pass along any portion or all of this letter, as you choose. I didn't see any way to leave a comment, especially one of this length, so chose to e-mail instead.

Best wishes,

Lockwood DeWitt