Living through disaster – The next megathrust earthquake

By Stephyn Quirke

Unless you’re new to the region, you’ve probably heard of a massive earthquake that could happen any time between right now and the year 2315

Experts crafted a narrative simulation of its first four minutes three years ago for The Portland Mercury, and last year received international attention through Reuters. When that quake hits, it could go down as the greatest natural disaster in US history.

According to geologists, megathrust earthquakes hit the Pacific Northwest at least 7 times in the last 3,500 years, and appear to occur every 400 – 600 years.

For decades it was assumed the Cascadia Subduction Zone (covering 800 miles of the Pacific coast) was not really capable of producing earthquakes. Settlers had never experienced one in their tiny slice of Pacific Northwest history and closed their ears to Native Americans who possessed several thousand years of non-European experience.

By the 1980s, however, scientists had collected physical evidence of massive earthquakes prior to European settlement, and realized that the apparent stillness of the subduction zone was actually an ominous silence.

It turns out the subduction zone we live on builds up tectonic pressure over long periods of time, then releases the most powerful earthquakes in the world, coming in at magnitudes of 9.0 or higher.

The last known megathrust in the region occurred in January of 1700, leading to a massive tsunami that slammed into Japan and the Pacific Coast.

To get a rough sense of how strong these quakes can be, consider that the earthquake magnitude scale is logarithmic. This means an 8.7 earthquake is quite a bit larger than a 5.8 earthquake – 794 times larger to be exact.

The difference in the earthquake’s force is even greater. According to the US Geological Survey, a magnitude 8.7 earthquake is about 23,000 times stronger than a 5.8 earthquake.

The discovery has left local planners scratching their heads: with over 600,000 people living in a city that has not planned for this, how and where do we even begin to have a plan?

According to experts who advised The Mercury, landslides alone will block roads all over the west hills, leaving many homes extremely vulnerable to fire and structural damage. Hastily-built apartments and condominiums may not fare much better on the east side.

“The sheer size of the disaster overwhelms official emergency response capacity,“ writes Jeremy O’Leary, Multnomah County employee and volunteer organizer on earthquake preparedness. “I’d argue that we will never actually ready for the Big One; it’s a question of to what degree we are prepared.”

According to O’Leary, the problem is compounded by the fact that the city is storing a huge array of oil and gas tanks in NW Portland – directly on top of ground prone to liquefaction.

In the event of an earthquake, the ground under these highly flammable and explosive tanks will start behaving like a liquid.

Experts from Multnomah County say that in the event of a 9.0 earthquake, 4 of the 8 bridges linking east and west Portland would collapse completely, with another two taking serious damage, and the remaining two (the Fremont and I-5 bridges) would take at least “moderate damage”.

Initiating a conversation about preparedness can be a daunting task – especially in rapidly-changing neighborhoods where people don’t know each other. Still, some forward-looking individuals have put together useful resources for the public, including sociologists who have studied the human response to disaster.

Many homes in Portland have not been retrofitted to withstand an earthquake, necessary to keep them from sliding off their foundations. The city governments host tips on home audits for related earthquake planning, and Resilience Northwest shares workshops on earthquake preparedness through their website.

A volunteer group called PDX PREP – Planning for Resilience and Emergency Preparedness group – is working to connect neighbors block-by-block to help them organize themselves for resilience.

Some steps we can take to prepare for disaster are unique to the harm it causes – for a quake, retrofitting houses, securing foundations or learning how to turn off a house’s flow of natural gas.

The sociological studies of disaster tells us is the most important preparation happens at the community level and requires more tight-knit communities that can provide direct support and mutual aid.

In many communities, similar networks have already formed to alleviate social disasters – Food Not Bombs, for example, uses wasted food to feed the houseless in public parks.

According to one study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, 40% of food in the United States is wasted. Right to Dream Too maintains a secure encampment downtown so that the houseless can sleep without being harassed by police.

Expanding networks like these helps people already experiencing disaster and prepares the city for bigger disasters ahead, which are likely to put tens of thousands out on the streets.

According to sociologists who study disasters, such neighborhood-level organizing is often better at providing for human needs than government responses – especially when people know their neighbors.

The problem is that even at their best, state responses to large disasters tend to be inflexible, and at worst they can over-emphasize a model of command-and-control that loses sight of human needs that are at the root of the crisis.

Contrary to popular belief, scholars who study disaster tell us that panic and violence are rare responses from the general public. Instead, most people in a crisis immediately begin working on the principle “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their need.”

In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit examines how a majority of people in a disaster not only cooperate, but do so with an intensity that reveals a deeply rooted desire – one that does not find an outlet in every-day life.

According to Solnit, many people after a disaster report a “sense of immersion in the moment and solidarity with others caused by the rupture in everyday life, an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive”.

By contrast, scholars of disaster have coined the term “elite panic” to describe the irrational fears of widespread panic and violence which paper over an obsession with property and privilege.

For Solnit, the relative mix of elite panic, command-and-control models, and community cooperation determine whether a natural disaster is followed by a deadly social disaster.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, false stories driven by this panic circulated widely in the media, and in one incident, police shot a man in the back five times for holding the scissors that would construct a cardboard shelter for his daughters.

In another incident, the National Guard kidnapped a Syrian man who had stayed behind to help his neighbors – acting on visions of minorities who transform into “terrorists” under the influence of disaster.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun was detained for weeks at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility without contact with the outside, where guards accused him of being part of Al Qaeda.

Such paranoia was clearly structural. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency was combined with the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, three-fourths of its disaster-preparedness grants were re-directed to counterterrorism and away from natural disasters.

For O’Leary, emergency preparedness, community resiliency, and long term sustainability are the same thing on different time-scales.

Common sense actions bring us closer to all three – establishing community centers, taking up community gardening, using rainwater collection systems, and setting up small-scale energy projects to guarantee electrical access.

As more people embrace such ideas, it’s important to remember that paranoia doesn’t always wait for disaster.

Living through disaster – The next megathrust earthquake

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