Preparedness & Recovery

Is the Pacific Northwest Ready to Deal with a Catastrophic Quake?

Many seismologists believe the Pacific Northwest is overdue for an earthquake that could register at magnitude 8.0 or larger.

by Christopher Brewer, McClatchy News / June 23, 2014

It’s only a matter of time before a catastrophic earthquake hits the Pacific Northwest, but what happens after the shaking subsides?

Aging buildings across the area would likely collapse, causing scores if not hundreds of deaths and injuries. Roads could become impassable, and many businesses throughout the region would likely cease to offer services for some time — completely changing the face of our region and the communities within as we know them.

The scenario is real, and that’s what brought engineers, emergency managers, public officials and interested citizens from across the Northwest to Centralia College on Thursday. The second day of the Construction and Best Practices Summit hosted by the college and the Pacific Northwest Center of Excellence for Clean Energy focused on how to best prepare for and recover from an earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a 1,000-kilometer fault stretching from Vancouver Island to Cape Mendocino, Calif.

Matt Cutts, critical infrastructure program manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Portland District, led the day’s agenda, honing in on what he termed as the Triple 3 Resilience Target, a goal of managing such a disaster to have emergency services running within three days, level of services to sustain the economy within three weeks and a target of three years to return to a sense of normalcy and better prepare for future disasters.

“We have such an interdependent nature to our infrastructure,” Cutts said. “After an earthquake, roads are going to be down — but we need fuel and electricity as well. Those things are so tightly wrapped together, it’s like a Gordian knot.”

Many seismologists believe the Pacific Northwest especially is overdue for an earthquake that could register at over 8.0 on the Richter scale, and Cutts said such a seismic event is inevitable, with a devastating impact to the economy and quality of life.

“If we had this happen tomorrow, we’d be looking at thousands of people dead. You’re also talking about months of recovery,” Cutts said. “We really need to increase the public awareness of the possibilities. Emergency managers are always thinking about what could happen, but Joe Taxpayer doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.”

Breakout sessions in the afternoon session focused on how several sectors of the economy and infrastructure would be affected in an earthquake or resulting tsunami. One session dealt strictly with ports and waterways. Another session brought emergency managers together to discuss what would happen at the local level, and another dealt with impacts to energy infrastructure such as dams, power grids and transformers.

The executive panel of the day brought together several leaders, including Oregon Emergency Management Director David Stuckey, who echoed the notion that public awareness of the dangers and impacts of a large earthquake is paramount. He pointed to the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami as evidence of such.

“Right after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, I got a call from a commissioner on one of the coastal counties,” Stuckey said. “There were people running to the beach with surfboards. … We have to create a broader perspective on how to educate people.”

Despite efforts being made to retrofit buildings and bridges across the Northwest to withstand a major earthquake, the panel agreed the major focus is how to restore the critical infrastructure and economy after such an event.

The goal of the summit’s second day was to give community leaders and emergency managers ideas on how to better prepare their communities for the effects of a catastrophe that is likely inevitable, and Cutts said he believed that goal was met.

“If we can achieve the Triple 3 Resilience Target, we end up with a manageable disaster instead of a catastrophe that would take us months or even years to recover from,” Cutts said.

©2014 The Chronicle (Centralia, Wash.)