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The Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami: A Response to the New Yorker Magazine Articles

A local emergency manager's response to recent articles about Cascadia.

Chuck Wallace, the local emergency manager for Grays Harbor, Washington prepared the following response to recent New Yorker magazine articles about the Cascadia Earthquake. Chuck is very active in seismic preparedness and mitigation for his community.

I first wrote of his mitigation efforts in an Emergency Management magazine article, Washington County Plans U.S.’ First Vertical Evacuation Tsunami Building



A Response to the New Yorker Magazine Articles

The articles recently presented in the New Yorker magazine by Kathryn Schulz, The Really Big One, (July 20, 2015) and How to Stay Safe When the Big One Comes, (July 28, 2015), have caused a tremendous amount of discussion throughout the nation. For the most part, her information is right on the mark as to what could occur during a Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake and resulting tsunami. However, while understanding her wish to channel her article’s “emotion into action,” it is apparent Ms. Schulz neglected to report on specific types of mitigation, prevention and safety plans which are in place in all coastal communities, to provide citizens and visitors the best chance of surviving an earthquake and possible tsunami.

In the city of Aberdeen WA, a coastal city in Grays Harbor County WA, Police Chief Bob Torgerson implemented a “Yellow Brick Road” signage program to help lead the citizens to higher ground and safety during an earthquake and tsunami event. The Quinault Indian Nation has initiated the same type program, as has the Shoalwater Bay Tribe in Tokeland WA.  This type of program will save many lives by getting the affected to high ground prior to the impact of tsunami.

Our schools take the possibility of disaster seriously. Twice each year they practice Drop, Cover and Hold On drills to teach students what they should do during an earthquake. During The Great Shakeout Exercise in October, (modeled after the California Great Shakeout Earthquake exercise), every school in our county practices Drop Cover and Hold On, then students, faculty and staff evacuate the school to their assigned assembly areas which are in tsunami safe areas. 

The Ocosta School District just outside of Westport Wash., is currently building the first Vertical Evacuation, Tsunami Safe Haven building in North America. This was driven by a community desiring to keep its children and the school’s teachers and employees safe should Cascadia decide to occur. This was modeled from Project Safe Haven which was initiated by Washington State Emergency Management Division, The WA Department of Natural Resources, the University of Washington, and FEMA. The new elementary school, with engineering to withstand multiple earthquakes and the impact from numerous tsunami, is based upon Japanese tsunami safe haven buildings, all which endured the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami.

The mitigation practices for earthquake and tsunami in Washington State are based upon our worst-case scenario. We have a deliberate tactic toward community preparedness education which we base upon an all hazards approach to disaster. Each person, home, business and government building has a site specific risk to specific hazards. Understanding those hazards and their associated risk is where we learn how best to reduce the impact of any particular disaster event upon our families and community creating the foundation for resilience.

According to some researchers and scientists, the odds for the next Cascadia earthquake are 1 in 3 in the next 50 years. Could it occur? Absolutely! Will it occur within that time frame? Let’s all hope it doesn’t.  Does that mean everyone should flee their communities or not visit West coast beaches because of a prediction? I think not. Where would we go? If we decided to move to Missouri, or Arkansas, Illinois or Kentucky we are at risk from the New Madrid Earthquake which is predicted to have 87,000 casualties and billions of dollars in losses. California is out…San Andreas Fault. Perhaps, that’s tornado alley. How about Florida and the Gulf States? No way, we’ve all heard about Katrina.  How about the Mid-Atlantic States? No, they had an earthquake a few years ago. I remember reading they just finished repairing the damage to the Washington Monument. As you can see, every place has issues when it comes to disaster.

There isn't a community in the world that can state they meet the threshold to be considered truly "Resilient." Even New York City, the most funded, trained and prepared city in the U.S. was not able to handle the issues presented by Superstorm Sandy. Japan, considered to be the most disaster prepared country in the world, suffered severely from the Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami in 2011, because of a belief they were "prepared enough".

The occurrence of the Cascadia earthquake and resulting Tsunami will be devastating to all. If we recognize the need for continued work to help reduce the impacts of emergencies and disaster, we can begin to move forward to reduce their impact upon ourselves, our community, business and industry and upon government. Preparedness saves lives. The cost of personal preparedness begins with a desire to become better educated about your risk and the potential impact of disaster to you and your family at home, work and during your daily routine

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.