… it’s a good wake-up call for anybody who might face a widespread natural disaster (which is, of course, everybody).
Last summer, a vast exercise called Cascadia Rising was quietly carried out through the Northwest. For government types and emergency-service providers only, it made barely a bump in the consciousness of ordinary people — which may prove to be the ultimate flaw in its design, but that’s a question for another day.
Cascadia Rising was designed to test emergency response in event of a “full rip” earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone. Full-rip means a monster, a megaquake, 9.0 or greater, with the catastrophe stretching from northern California to Vancouver Island and the west coast of British Columbia.
There is a terrific book about this eventuality. Everybody in the PNW should read it and anybody outside who’s concerned about preparedness and/or fascinated by incredible catastrophe might want to read it. Even a quake that doesn’t rip the entire fault is likely to be in the 8.0 range — which we could happily do without, thank you.
Back to the exercise: It was hard to find details on the methodology and assumptions (.pdf) used to simulate such an unthinkable disaster. I found no comprehensive after-action report, though one must surely exist. Mostly, there were local reports. But apparently the drill was honest enough that the experts concluded that they, and we, were in some pretty deep yogurt.
Among other things, they concluded that we in the hinterlands should forget the old three-day kit (which you already knew, right?). Not only that. We should forget the one-week kit. And the two-week kit. We should be prepared to take care of ourselves for a full month.
Having lived long in the PNW hinterlands, I totally hear that.
Even without reading a Cascadia Rising after-action report, I can tell you what’s going to happen. Because the shaking will be worst here, because the “snap” of the quake may cause coastal land to subside as much as six feet, and because a megaquake will generate a megatsunami, many coastal areas of Washington, Oregon, and northern California will be largely wiped out. In some places, like the low-lying, 28-mile Long Beach Peninsula in Washington state, the death tolls could approach 100% — let’s say 80% to be conservative, but the survivors would be injured, hungry, thirsty, cold, shellshocked, homeless, and increasingly at risk of disease. Look at a map: those people have no place to run.
In a few such low-lying places, vertical shelters are starting to rise. But these are useful only to those who can quickly reach them on foot. They’re more a hopeful gesture than anything else.
But the coast will have two other disadvantages when it comes to getting aid. First (and least) the roads will be out. More importantly — nobody on the outside will give a flaming damn what happens to us.
Seattle (and suburbs), Tacoma, Portland, Olympia, Vancouver, and other population centers are all that will matter. They’re all “inland,” and not subject to the total ruination faced by those on the coast. But all of them are also on water and most of them face grave danger from everything from subsidiary faults to suspicious soil types to harmonic effects on tall buildings (the terrific book explains).
And they’re simply where the people are. Where the news coverage is. Cities are simply the only thing that matters when disaster strikes.
We’ve seen it before. Everybody knows that Katrina nearly drowned New Orleans. How many care what it did to the entire rest of the Gulf Coast? When the Great Coastal Gale of 2007 struck the northwest, all the attention — all of it — was focused on a small but dramatic bit of flooding along the I-5 corridor, a place the media could easily get to, film, and give a hoot about because that freeway was on their radar and their regular commute routes. By the time FEMA and the National Guard made it into the hinterlands, there was nothing for them to do; the locals (and the timber companies whose forests were destroyed) had taken care of themselves. Or were well along the way to doing so.
This belief that cities matter and noplace else does isn’t new. Remember the Great Peshtigo Fire? Probably not unless you’re a disaster buff or a resident of Wisconsin. Because even though its death toll was 5-10 times that of the Great Chicago Fire and it remains the deadliest fire in U.S. history, the two fires happened on the same day. So who cares about up to 2,400 farmers and small-town people dead when 200-some urbanites died?
Bottom line: it’s not only the weeping, disaster-loving media that will ignore the places where the worst damage is done. But it’s the “official” emergency response system.* In some ways, rightly so because they’re concerned about dealing with the largest numbers of people. In some ways, wrongly and cynically because they’re concerned about what the urban-biased media and urban-biased legislators and bureaucrats think. They know their urban response will be under the microscope. They know they don’t have to give a rat’s patoot about a bunch of hicks in rural Hickland. Unless some popular tourist attraction or perhaps some favored minority community takes an especially hard hit.
Of course, there are advantages to being ignored by government. I hardly need to enumerate them; not for this audience. “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you” has proven just as awful in a lot of disasters as it has in other parts of life. Yes, being ignored by “official” emergency-management types can be a good thing — but only if we are physically and mentally prepared to do for ourselves and others.
In a place like the one where I live, we’ll probably do just fine. Swaths of the Oregon coast (which is generally more elevated than Washington’s) will do okay and people will soon be in a position to help their refugee neighbors. Places like the Long Beach Peninsula? Or touristy Gearhart and Seaside, Oregon? Or some of the tribal lands along the Washington coast? Forget it. They’re doomed. At least the places are doomed. Some particularly savvy, well-prepared, and lucky people won’t have to be.
But if you live anywhere in the outskirts — in the Northwest or elsewhere — take that one-month emergency preparedness warning very, very seriously. And be ready to help your neighbors, too.
I know many of you reading this already are that well-prepared. Now, be sure your neighbors and your community get the message. And — as always — good luck to us all!
*UPDATE: I should clarify that this applies to the larger emergency response system based outside the hinterlands. Some county systems may do okay — and better if they enable, encourage, or at least don’t interfere with “civilians” pitching in.
H/T to S.I.O. for the topic