A major Pacific Ocean fault line is 70 years overdue for its next major earthquake and tsunami.
Don’t you hate sentences that start with the warning “Not to scare anybody, but…”
But that’s what author Kathryn Schulz should have considered for the lead to her story, printed in the New Yorker this week, explaining just what is going to happen when the next major quake occurs in the ocean west of what we call the Pacific Northwest.
And her story came not only with warnings, but an explanation that, yes, another major quake is going to happen, some day.
The last quake in the Pacific Northwest of a magnitude of 9 occurred in 1700, and it destroyed thousands of acres of forest along the west coast of North America. In 1700, that and Indian villages were all that existed there; it occurred 100 years before Lewis and Clark completed their exploration of the area.
The cause of that earthquake, and the future one, is the Cascadia subduction zone, a 700-mile fault line that runs from northern California to Vancouver, where two tectonic plates have been moving and shifting into each other forever and which, inevitably, create enough pressure to cause a gigantic earthquake.
The story suggests that when the earthquake and tsunami recede, the states of Oregon, Washington, as well as Northern California will be severely affected. Kenneth Murphy, the director of Region X of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told Schulz “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”
Interstate 5, by the way, runs north and south from San Diego into Canada about 125 miles east of the ocean. FEMA posits that 13,000 people would die and 27,000 people would be injured if the Cascadia subduction zone erupts into a magnitude 9 earthquake.
The point of the article is that the Pacific Northwest is vastly underprepared for such an event. While the area now has a code by which buildings must be constructed to withstand a 9.0 magnitude quake, that code was developed in 1994, and most of the buildings in the area were constructed before then.
FEMA estimates that one million buildings in the region would collapse under the stress of such an earthquake.
In response to the article, a forum took place on the website Reddit, and included several Northwest earthquake specialists, including John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network. Vidale said the threat of the tsunami to the cities of Seattle and Portland were overstated in the article, but did confirm much of what Schulz reported.
“Communication may black out, transportation may grind to a halt, stores conceivably could run out of goods for a while,’’ Vidale said.
The city of Seattle is protected from the tsunami by the Olympic Peninsula and Puget Sound, which would deflect some of the water attack. Portland is 100 miles from the coast, but the tsunami could travel up the Columbia River to flood the area, although the experts said that, too, was not entirely feasible.
But the force of the tsunami and earthquake could not only destroy homes along the coast, it could also have an effect on the tallest buildings in Seattle and Portland.
The science of predicting such an event is uneven, but a team of seismologists have put the odds of a major earthquake and tsunami resulting from the Cascadia construct in the next 50 years at one chance in three.
It has been 315 years since the last earthquake in the 243-year cycle. Scientists have determined the recurrence intervals approximately every 243 years.
“This is one time I am hoping all the science is wrong, and it won’t happen for another thousands years,’’ Murphy said.
Kent McDill is a staff writer for Millionaire Corner. McDill spent 30 years as a sports writer, working for United Press International and the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill. From 1988-1999, he covered the Chicago Bulls for the Daily Herald, traveling with them every day through the nine-month season. He also covered the Bulls for UPI from 1985-88, and currently covers the team for www.nba.com. He has written two books on the Bulls, including the new title “100 Things Bulls Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die’, published by Triumph Books. In August 2013, his new book “100 Things Bears Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die” gets published.
In 2008, he resigned from the Herald and became a freelance writer. The Herald hired him to write business features and speeches for the Daily Herald Business Conferences and Awards presentations.
McDill also writes a monthly parenting column for the Herald’s Suburban Parent magazine.
McDill is the father of four children, and an active fan of soccer, Jimmy Buffett and all things Disney.