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Although this applies only to the Pacific Northwest …

… 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?

Ahem. [/rant]

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


  1. HIstorian
    HIstorian October 28, 2016 8:58 am

    My assessment is that it might take twice that long or more, especially if the regional grid goes down. A month is a good start, but the Mormons have the right idea.

    The other “to do” is to secure your home against quakes. Simple stuff like ensuring that your water heater is restrained against falling over, that your home has earthquake reinforcing on the structure, with adequate lateral force resisting systems.

    If you want to see what a real earthquake resistant structure looks like, go visit the American Red Cross offices in Portland Oregon. That building, with its blood bank and processing center, will be standing after all the hospitals in Portland have collapsed.

    Cascadia quakes are a real threat, but the biggest seismic risk in the US is in the central US, around the New Madrid Seismic Zone, roughly between St Louis and Memphis. That area is subject to similar sized quakes, but there is virtually no awareness of the hazard, nor any meaningful regulatory standard for seismic design in that area. Moreover, 6 of the 7 pipelines that serve the NE USA cross that seismic zone, not to mention the rail lines and electrical power grid that goes through there, and the impact on barge traffic in the Mississippi River.

    A Cascadia quake would be a regional disaster unlike anything we have seen.

    A New Madrid quake would be a national disaster of biblical proportions, especially if it happens in the winter, as the last one did. The last New Madrid quake caused damage to the Capital building under construction in Washington DC.

  2. Mike Jordan
    Mike Jordan October 28, 2016 9:05 am

    I was part of the Cascadia Rising exercise,
    It’s really interesting that the initial and all the subsequent “reports” that we have see showed the cities, counties and all local emergency groups did an excellent job. My area was communications and “all” the northern coastal counties got A+ grades with turnout and quality of work, and while I have not seen the reports out of Canada, southwestern WA and Northern OR – rumor mill says they did equally well.
    I find it interesting that all of a sudden the exercise was considered a failure.
    I’m not the only one that thinks this is a drive for money and funding for “regional” entities.

  3. Claire
    Claire October 28, 2016 9:13 am

    You are spot-on as usual, Historian.

    My own house has some earthquake deficits that I hope to fix at the same time I get the back foundation raised and repaired. These old block-and-beam foundations tend to rely on gravity to keep them in place, but in a megaquake gravity’s going to do funny things. Oddly, foundations like these are probably better than most in moderate quakes because they’re flexible. Big quake? Not so much.

    I also know the Mormons have the right idea. I’ve always thought it a good idea to have a year’s supply — or better, two years’ — of food on hand. But I also see prep supplies in three levels: short-term, mid-term, and long-term. As I see it, the “one month” here applies primarily to short-term: clean water when none may be available; familiar, easy foods you don’t have to put a lot of effort into preparing, medical preps, emergency light and power, etc.

    Not everybody can afford to prep for the long term, and even when they do, it’s a different style of prepping. In the long term (short of total TEOTWAWKI), safe water and power will have been restored. Roads, too. It’s mainly a matter of getting through hard times. So here I (and I think the emergency-management types, also) are strictly talking about immediate disaster preps. Sure, if people can afford and have the space for two months of catastrophe-level preps, two is better than one. If it’s doable.

    There’s some dispute about how much risk there really is on the New Madrid fault. But without a doubt, quakes like the ones that struck back then would be a national, almost biblical, catastrophe.

  4. Claire
    Claire October 28, 2016 9:23 am

    Mike Jordan — If you’d like to write up a report of your experiences, I’d be thrilled to run it here.

    You’re in a position to know more than I, and I don’t doubt that emergency managers are pitching for more money. OTOH nobody should consider it a failure if the exercise uncovered problems to be solved — which was a major purpose of the thing, yes?

    Also, given that this was an exercise, not a reality, I think it’s better to err on the side of caution. A+ grades leave me suspicious. That said, I really hope you’ll write up your experience and let me blog it here.

  5. Claire
    Claire October 28, 2016 9:32 am

    It also seems odd to me that months after the exercise concluded even people involved in it are having to rely on rumors rather than detailed reports. Or even preliminary results shared via email or a closed website.

    From the spotty news I’ve read, seems that many local areas might have done good work while urban areas and/or overall management had problems. But a real after-action report is sure needed.

  6. wild bill b
    wild bill b October 28, 2016 9:32 am

    keep in mind that if it has been raining, much of the higher hillsides on the Cascade coasts will turn to liquid during the quake. Many trees came down back in January that had survived years of heavy rains simply because of some higher-than-normal wind.

    i’d take a look at the hillsides around you, and prepare for those landslides that will disable the meager roadways you need to get to anything.

  7. Claire
    Claire October 28, 2016 9:38 am

    wild bill b — Amen. We have some extremely soupy soils and steep slopes covered with shallow-rooted trees. This is a real problem.

    Where I am, one of the main highways partially washes out or sinks in several places multiple times in an ordinary winter. A few years ago one PNW county had a single mudslide. But that mudslide took out its one and only main access road. Residents had to travel hours out of their way for several months to get anywhere.

    I think anybody along the coasts should count on ALL major roads being out for a long time after a megaquake. The one big salvation might be timber companies. They have equipment and road-building knowhow and it’s based locally. After the 2007 gale, it was they (along with local residents) who cleared and restored many of the more rural roads before any government agency got to the job.

  8. Comrade X
    Comrade X October 28, 2016 10:41 am

    Bridges being out should be a concern to anyone who is planning a bug out to another location that crosses water, unless you know of an operating ferry you might be up the creek with no paddle!

    I know of some rivers/lakes/islands where if the bridges go out there could be a large number of people cut off as far as ground transportation is concerned.

  9. Comrade X
    Comrade X October 28, 2016 11:18 am

    Generators, to have or not to have; that is the question?

    Everyone should have one (or two or more) IMHO but when the fuel runs out what then? Methinks we should prepare for that, I have both generators that are fossil fueled and solar. You can say the solar are best because the fuel never runs out but since I don’t live in Arizona but on the wet side of the Cascades, I find there may be a big gap between when the solar is charged and being charged, that is for the so called solar generators, which IMHO are only big batteries, now permanent solar panels are a horse of another color.

    On the other hand being able to live without power like in the old days as much as possible is a consideration I have in my preparation as the ultimate fall back, if nothing else because of the potential EMP problem unless of course I can live in a Faraday cage bubble which is possible but not probable.

  10. jc2k
    jc2k October 28, 2016 11:48 am

    Prior to the Fukushima quake/tsunami they had predicted a wave much smaller than what hit them – it was 128 feet at its highest point (6 miles inland). Right now they’re predicting a 60 foot inundation in a worst case scenario for a Cascadia subduction, but some geologist are warning that it could be much worse (possibly 100 feet or more). All the preparations are based on a 60 foot worst case. Many emergency services are now being based below the potential 100 foot inundation. The landslides are also going to put a big kink in what they’re expecting are going to be evacuation routes. Oregon has a hazard viewer map to see the inundation areas and past and potential landslide areas – – I’d assume Washington has compiled a similar map.

  11. Claire
    Claire October 28, 2016 12:09 pm

    Thank you, jc2k. 128 feet? Hard to imagine. But I’ve always doubted the 60-foot projections. Recently I talked with my state’s tsunami awareness PR ‘crat and asked him about how they arrive at projections, including whether they account for land subsidence. He said they purposefully boost the projections by 10% to be on the safe side, and that they try to account for land permanently dropping, but can’t really because there’s not enough data for them to have a good idea what areas will drop and which will rise.

    But he was not a scientist, just a rather enthusiastic PR guy, and when I asked him about what would happen in places like Gearhart, OR, or the Long Beach Peninsula in WA, he gave what I saw as a “happy” — and evasive — answer. Sixty feet would be enough to wipe those locations out. I believe the highest point on the LB Peninsula is roughly that. A wave any higher … shudder. And what about those hopeful “vertical shelters” based on what may be faulty projections?

    And you’re right. Even if the waves are “only” (gulp!) 60 feet or less, the evacuation routes are likely to be badly damaged. Not to mention that, despite all the education attempts, a lot of &^%$#@s are going to try to get out by car rather than on foot.

    I’m glad I’m back up in the hills again.

  12. Claire
    Claire October 28, 2016 12:12 pm

    Comrade X — I would love to have two generators. It’s especially cool that you have a solar one, but I laugh whenever I hear about solar-powered anything (beyond, say, emergency lights) in western WA or OR.

    Two generators. I’m still working on acquiring ONE really good one. Maybe after I win the lottery. Oh, but I forgot; I don’t buy lottery tickets. Meanwhile, two of my nearest neighbors do have generators, and I like those neighbors very much.

  13. Comrade X
    Comrade X October 28, 2016 1:09 pm

    When I win the lottery there will be a generator of your choice on the way but don’t keep the lights on till it happens!

  14. RAM
    RAM October 28, 2016 1:13 pm

    I was a participant in some preliminary FEMA workshops several years ago, and have kept in touch with some prominent current participants. What I have been told privately is that it might be years before a significant government presence can be reestablished in my area (southern coastal Oregon) with reliable transportation away from the coast. In addition to the complete destruction of communications, the power infrastructure, Highway 101 (the only way into or out of my county most of the year), all the roads running from I-5 to the coast, and the massive damage to I-5 itself, are the “what ifs”. It appears that a Cascadia Event may trigger a major San Andreas event. Who is going to get the resources if that happens, Port Orford, Oregon, or Los Angeles, California?

    We’re on our own.

  15. Claire
    Claire October 28, 2016 1:18 pm

    Awwww, Comrade X. You’re a sweetie. I already have a generator fund, which began a couple of years ago with one BIG donation from long-time supporters (who have since fallen on hard times themselves, which makes me wonder if I should send it back). But I admit it: I’ve been holding out for that Honda or Yamaha. Seem to be some other possibilities now, though.

  16. Claire
    Claire October 28, 2016 1:19 pm

    RAM — Thank you for making this Halloween season EVEN SCARIER. But thanks also for the reality check.

  17. Joel
    Joel October 28, 2016 2:51 pm

    “What I have been told privately is that it might be years before a significant government presence can be reestablished in my area …”

    Which, not to make light of the subject, does sort of sound like a silver lining…

  18. LarryA
    LarryA October 28, 2016 3:17 pm

    I was part of the Cascadia Rising exercise,

    If I might ask a question, Mike?
    Back in the day I participated in one of a series of exercises. What I immediately noticed is the score-oriented planning. IOW the PTB would start with a list of resources, like law enforcement, fire department, Red Cross, ham operators, etc. and plan an exercise that would engage each of them in a task they were set up to accomplish.
    The grades, of course, were excellent.
    Our group leader came up with the silly notion that perhaps planning should start with a disaster, predict what was likely to happen, then try to fit assets were they were needed. We didn’t get asked back.

    Have emergency management exercises gotten away from that?

  19. Coyote Hubbard
    Coyote Hubbard October 28, 2016 5:14 pm

    Im HAM radio outfitted, no license yet so I just listen. Anyway, I had my receivers tuned into the frequencies during this drill and it turned out the days this started were my days off.
    In a nutshell, it was pretty boring monitoring. Most of what I heard was just correcting others if they were not using the exacting and precise way to transmit critical info. OK, I can understand a uniform system to make sure the correct info is given, but really, in a disaster situation It would go out the window fast.

  20. bobbookworm
    bobbookworm October 28, 2016 10:51 pm

    I have to agree with RAM that we are going to be on our own if a large quake hits the coast…I’m just a few miles south of Port Orford…last winter one lane Hwy 101 up the hill from us dropped 10 inches just from the soaked ground slipping and there are probably 10 or 15 places between Port Orford and Brookings where they patched sections that had cracked from ground slippage. When the earthquake comes there will be large sections of 101 gone on the south coast. Access to the outside world will probably depend on the logging companies building a road out rather than rescuers building one in…they are going to be too busy elsewhere to worry about a few people in the boonies.

  21. Claire
    Claire October 29, 2016 7:35 am

    LarryA — Re your question to Mike — I don’t know how often he’s able to come here and read comments (busy businessman). But he has agreed to an email interview about Cascadia Rising and I included your query in the Q&A.

    Once he has time to answer, I’ll blog his responses.

  22. Roberta X
    Roberta X October 29, 2016 8:53 am

    On the topic of disasters, has anyone recommended Lionel Shriver’s “The Mandibles: A Family, 2029 – 2047”? Reasonably good SF from a mainstream author (which is to say she has some problems with worldbuilding and foreshadowing but tells a good story) covering a near-future economic meltdown in the U.S. in a largely realistic manner.

  23. LarryA
    LarryA October 29, 2016 9:38 am

    Thanks, Claire.

    I’m currently working with a county CERT, and again the local leader seems more responsive than those up the food chain and those from the city.

    I still think we’re better off. In the hinterlands there’s a much higher percentage of roll-up-your-sleeves-and-solve-the-problem folks, while cities tend to be popular with the where’s-the-government-now-that-I-really-need-them types.

  24. HIstorian
    HIstorian November 3, 2016 9:02 am

    A few comments as I check back on this thread.

    1- coastal elevation changes of as much as 10 meters have been documented for past Cascadia events. This could be rise or fall.

    2- the tsunami is likely to be fast arriving, faster than Fukushima, and has the potential to be higher, depending on topography.

    3- the quake intensity has the potential to be as much as 2 magnitudes greater than Fukushima.

    In view of this, if I lived in coastal PNW I would:
    -not live directly on the coast;
    -would avoid locating structures on alluvial soil; rock is best;
    -would not build with unreinforced masonry or unreinforced concrete;
    -would design the structure to withstand horizontal accelerations of at least 1 g.
    – would stock at least a year of food and other consumable supplies;
    – would consider alternate transportation modes. Horses or mules come to mind.

  25. lineman
    lineman November 3, 2016 11:45 am

    Or Historian find some other place to live where you only have natural disasters that you can mitigate without much cost… Just a thought…

  26. Claire
    Claire November 3, 2016 1:28 pm

    lineman — That place could be elusive. I’m sure people moving to Wyoming and Montana once thought their disaster mitigation problems were minor. And of course, they were right because when the Yellowstone supervolcano blows everybody in the region will be too buried under lava and ash to worry about mitigating anything.

    Indeed, you can mitigate for known hazards. When I lived in Minnesota I thought nothing of planning for and recovering from giant blizzards. But there’s really no place whose hazards are confidently predictable. Meteor strike. Unknown earthquake fault. Tunguska event. Chemical spill. Explosion in a factory. Climate change (manmade or otherwise). Somebody builds a feedlot next door. CIA or military decides to conduct chem-bio experiments on the locals. A nuke aimed for City X hits Rural Area Y. You live in the most benign spot you can find, then a plague strikes or you become deathly allergic to something in the enviromment. Who knows?

    Besides, some of the greatest places in the world are built on hazards (e.g. the fertile slopes of volcanoes tend to give rise to ag communities, then cities; rivers flood but also attract abundant commerce). The PNW happens to be one of those. Until about 20 years ago nobody knew the true potential of a Cascadia quake. We’re still learning. But even now that we have some idea, there are still multitudes of reasons to stay.

    I’m such a “nut” about the local hazards that when a friend offered me a couple of nights in a seaside condo I said, “Nope. Never stay overnight there. Tsunami — everybody dies.” When I have stayed near the ocean, I always make sure to rent a place above the tsunami zone and to check out the escape route first thing. Still, I’m not leaving here simply because I’ve learned from experience that this is where I belong. Disaster threats and mitigation are only part of anyone’s concern when it comes to leading a full life.

  27. Claire
    Claire November 3, 2016 1:28 pm

    BTW, good list, Historian!

  28. lineman
    lineman November 3, 2016 2:19 pm

    I meant common natural disasters that happen on a regular occurrence like fire, flood, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornado’s, volcanos, blizzards, ice storms, things of that nature….It’s all about the odds and mitigating them to the best of your ability…The things you brought up I’ve heard so many times as an excuse to not do anything and that’s what is frustrating… If you went in to a casino and you were the type to gamble and one game you had one to one odds that you would win and another game you had one to a hundred odds which game would you play? I just want good people to survive Claire that’s all…

  29. Claire
    Claire November 3, 2016 2:38 pm

    “I just want good people to survive Claire that’s all…”

    Oh, me, too, lineman. Definitely! Personally, I haven’t seen uncommon geographical hazards used as an excuse for inaction, though I can see how they could be. That said, I’ve seen plenty of excuses for inaction in the cause of personal freedom (“I don’t have enough money.” “My family doesn’t approve.” “The government’s too big and we’d all be doomed, anyhow.” Etc. ad infinitum.)

    I’ve also seen people relocate to “safer” areas impulsively, without thinking out all the ramifications, then find themselves jobless, friendless, broke, ill-equipped to thrive in a new culture, or simply living in a community they don’t understand or that won’t accept them. I’ve seen people really, really devastate their lives that way. Divorce. Bankruptcy. Ending up attached to cults. Depressed and personally broken.

    So I tend view the geographical, or even the political or situational, blessings of any given location as only part of a larger context. I don’t think people should think so hard about every possible factor that they freeze and do nothing. But they need to have an idea of what they’re getting into as well as what they’re trying to get away from.

  30. Claire
    Claire November 3, 2016 2:44 pm

    LarryA — “Near the coast I was always partial to the AAV-P7 as a bug-out RV.” You definitely don’t think small, do you?

  31. lineman
    lineman November 3, 2016 2:45 pm

    But they need to have an idea of what they’re getting into as well as what they’re trying to get away from.
    Oh definitely which is why I have offered to help anyone looking for a safer place to see if this place is a good fit… I’ve done the research so others behind the curve can use my knowledge to help themselves out…

  32. LarryA
    LarryA November 3, 2016 3:38 pm

    You definitely don’t think small, do you?

    True. But you have to remember I have two survival modes; what I prepare for and what I write fiction about.

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