A longtime awareness of standing on shaky ground

Anyone who has lived in the Puget Sound region for 20 years or more has experienced at least one substantial earthquake and possibly three or four.

Anyone who has lived in the Puget Sound region for 20 years or more has experienced at least one substantial earthquake and possibly three or four. I say “substantial” since there are numerous teeny-tiny quakes every few months, but we aren’t aware of them because they don’t collapse buildings in Pioneer Square. In either case, large or small, longtime residents on this mossy little plateau are well aware that the solid, stable ground we rely on is, in fact, quite unstable.

Catastrophic earthquakes occur all over the world. This is especially true on the so-called “Pacific Rim”; that is, around the entire Pacific fringe, from Japan, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Chile, Central America, and up the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada to Alaska. Many of the millions of people crowded into major metro areas on this coastal zone have already experienced first-hand some kind of awesome, cataclysmic quake — and those who haven’t will do so in the relatively near future. The last big one I recall occurred in Indonesia in 2004. It killed 6,000 people and injured more than 30,000. A few years before that an undersea “shaker” produced a tsunami that killed nearly 250,000 in Southeast Asia. (Yeah, you read that right; it’s not a misprint.)

What causes such fiascos? Well, according to the geological theory called Plate Tectonics, the surface of the earth consists of at least six, and probably more, “islands of rock” that float around on the earth’s molten core. These islands or plates grind against each other and the strain and pressure is occasionally released with a sudden jolt. There is currently no way to predict two or three months in advance when such quakes might occur. (Scientists have implanted certain sensors in the ocean floor that may give us an hour’s warning if we’re lucky.) Nevertheless, there is near universal agreement among the professionals that the odds of a serious Northwest quake happening in the next 50 years are about one in three. The odds of a very big one in the next 50 years are roughly one in 10.

Which is to say, it could happen any time.

When a really serious quake hits the Northwest, the edge of our continent will drop as much as six feet and then immediately rebound 30 to 100 feet. Most of that shift will take place beneath the ocean, producing a colossal 700-mile wall of water that will reach the Washington coast in roughly 15 minutes and sweep inland to the Cascade Range. When the tsunami recedes, our region will be completely demolished. According to Ken Murphy, director of the FEMA division responsible for Washington state, “Everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.” It will be the worst natural disaster in the history of North America.

Unfortunately, there’s not a damned thing we can do about this situation, except move to more solid ground. Strange as it may seem, this is easier said than done because finding stable terra firma anywhere else can also be difficult. Fault lines crisscross most areas of the U.S. on both sides of the Rocky and Appalachian mountains, even throughout the central plains of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

I suppose you might try North Dakota, but if I had to choose between that desolate, lonely, wind-blown state and the “big one,” I’d take my chances here. After all, we can always assume the “big one” will happen tomorrow — and, of course, tomorrow never gets here.

Yet, in even the worst case scenario, the uncanny survival of certain institutions can give one reason to be optimistic. When the 1906 earthquake left much of San Francisco in shambles, at least one place emerged completely unscathed: The Hotaling’s whiskey warehouse. When it comes to human survival, it seems fate knows what buildings are really important.

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