A new report predicts that a mega-earthquake could kill an estimated 13,000 people and destroy a sizable portion of the Pacific Northwest. By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable. Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA’s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”
To the north of California’s famous San Andreas fault is a less known, but possibly more deadly, fault line. The Cascadia subduction zone runs some 700 miles from northern California to Vancouver.
Stretching more than 600 miles (965 km) along the coastline from Vancouver Island down to California’s Cape Mendocino lies a sleeping, tectonic giant capable of causing massive devastation and drastically changing the face of the Pacific Northwest.
The Cascadia subduction zone rests beneath the waves approximately 62 miles (100 km) offshore where the oceanic Juan de Fuca Plate converges and slides under, or subducts beneath, the western edge of the North American continent.
The same fierce geologic forces which gave rise to the Cascade Range and cemented the region’s place in the Ring of Fire have also been responsible for massive earthquakes, volcanism and catastrophic tsunami events in the past.
“The last great [Cascadia] earthquake occurred 300 years ago,” Seattle-based USGS seismologist Joan Gomberg said, referencing the megathrust quake that rocked Cascadia in 1700 and sent tsunami waves across the Pacific, damaging villages in Japan.
Unlike other subduction zones, or megathrusts, which are the result of other convergent plate boundaries, the Cascadia seems to be strongly locked and rarely releases its housed energy in the form of smaller magnitude quakes. Instead, it tends to rupture on a larger scale, according to Gomberg.
“That’s one difference as we don’t seem to have the frequency [of smaller magnitude quakes],” she said. “We just go big.”
The return interval of the Cascadia is approximately 500 years, but some megaquakes have occurred within as short a time as 200 years or upwards of 1,000 years, Gomberg added.
Evidence of its destructive impact in the region can be found in the geological makeup of the land as well as the remains of ghost forests, or areas of trees that fell with the land and were submerged by seawater, Gomberg said.
Other indicators of the tectonic plate movements include marked movement of the land, a technique in measuring its effects that has greatly improved with technological advancements like GPS, Gomberg said.
Since seismologists cannot predict when earthquakes will occur, a Cascadia rupture leading to an 8.0 or higher magnitude earthquake would strike the Pacific Northwest without warning, a potential disaster the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) addressed within a four-day exercise of unprecedented scale.
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Last month between June 7-10, FEMA held its Cascadia Rising exercise, which included participants from the U.S. military, 50 counties, major cities, tribal nations, state and federal agencies, members of private business and other nongovernmental organizations across Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
In addition, organizations in British Columbia and Canadian governmental agencies also linked their earthquake preparedness exercises to coincide with FEMA’s four-day event. While Oregon has planned for this worst-case scenario in the past 10 years during other exercises, FEMA’s Cascadia Rising was held on a much larger scale.
Estimates of when the next major earthquake will occur range from 10 to 15 percent within the next 50 years, Gomberg said, adding it could happen tomorrow, or within several hundred years. When the area finally does rupture, it could slowly tear apart along the 600-mile stretch, which could cause several minutes of shaking and displace a massive amount of seawater.
Within approximately 20 minutes of a major earthquake, a colossal wall of seawater would hit the shoreline, Gomberg said. Unfortunately, depending on the time of year and location, some people will not be able to avoid the deadly wave, she added.
According to Cory Grogan, public information representative for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, the main concern for preparedness is how many are at risk, directly or indirectly, from a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake and tsunami event.
Grogan agreed with Gomberg, stating that given that a portion of the population along coastal Oregon is located within the identified tsunami inundation zone, the timing of the event would have an impact on public safety and could vary based on a variety of factors.
“In general terms, planning estimates place the number of fatalities and injuries statewide at 5,200 and 15,500, [sourced from the Cascadia Rising Scenario], respectively as a result of both the earthquake and tsunami,” Grogan said.
“In a broad sense, the entire state will be impacted from a catastrophic earthquake, either directly or indirectly, as infrastructure and networks fail, transportation routes are impacted, fuel becomes unavailable, businesses go defunct, and commodities become scarce. So, total impact to people could equal the current population plus transit visitors.”
The largest Oregon coastal cities that would be directly impacted by a tsunami include Astoria, Seaside, Lincoln City, Newport, North Bend, Coos Bay, Florence, Bandon, Gold Beach and Brookings. Additional smaller coastal cities, towns and communities would also be impacted, he added.
“Any significant subduction zone quake would have immediate impact on coastal and valley areas of the state,” Grogan said. “It is estimated that, depending upon how the subduction zone fractures, warning time for a coastal tsunami would be between 15 and 30 minutes.”
Fortunately, the cities of Vancouver, Seattle and Portland do not sit directly on the coastline, but the threat of shaking still poses a risk to older structures not designed to withstand earthquakes, Gomberg said.
While technology continues to advance scientists’ understanding of the Earth’s plate movements and its rich, geologic history, at this point in time, there are no warning systems for early seismic detection.
Tsunami warning systems are in place, and evacuation routes have been mapped in coastal regions, Gomberg said. However, earthquakes strike without advanced warning and the amount of time to react in coastal areas will be limited.
“One of the primary goals of Cascadia Rising is to train and test this whole community approach to complex disaster operations together as a joint team,” FEMA reported, adding that recent subduction zone earthquakes around the world like the 2011 Tohoku quake “underscore the catastrophic impacts we will face when the next [Cascadia subduction zone] earthquake and tsunami occurs in our region.”
In a deeply reported article for The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz tells the tale of how this fault lies dormant for periods of 243 years, on average, before unleashing monstrous tremors. The Pacific Northwest is 72 years overdue for the next quake, which is expected to be between 8.0 and 9.2 in magnitude.
At the upper end of that scale, Schulz notes, we would experience “the worst natural disaster in the history of North America.” (The major 2011 earthquake in Japan was a 9.0, killing more than 15,000 people.)
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) already has an emergency response plan for when this earthquake hits. Parts of FEMA’s quake expectations are truly terrifying. As Schulz writes:
FEMA projects that nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. Another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, and the agency expects that it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million.
These projections are based on a scenario that has the earthquake striking at 9:41 a.m. February 6. (The agency isn’t trying to predict the future or saying that the earthquake will definitely occur then, they just need a date to plan around.) The toll would be far higher on a warm day, when more people — often huge crowds of people — are at the beach or in the water.
When the quake does occur, its severe effects and the impacts of the following tsunami (“It will look like the whole ocean, elevated, overtaking land”) will be felt all the way from Canada to Sacramento, in densely populated cities like Seattle and Portland.
What’s more, the Pacific Northwest is not earthquake ready. Buildings aren’t retrofitted properly and there aren’t many effective emergency warning systems or escape plans in place.
Most Americans expect the next great earthquake in the United States to come on the west coast. But what if it strikes right down the middle of the country instead? The New Madrid fault zone is six times larger than the San Andreas fault zone in California and it covers portions of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. Back in 1811 and 1812, a series of absolutely devastating earthquakes along the New Madrid fault zone opened very deep fissures in the ground, caused the Mississippi River to run backwards in some places, and were reportedly felt as far away as Washington D.C. and Boston. They were the strongest earthquakes ever recorded east of the Rocky Mountains, and scientists tell us that it is only a matter of time before we experience similar quakes. In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey has admitted that the New Madrid fault zone has the “potential for larger and more powerful quakes than previously thought“, and the number of significant earthquakes in the middle part of the country has more than quintupled in recent years. Someday, perhaps without any warning, an absolutely massive earthquake will strike the New Madrid fault. Thousands of Americans will die, tens of thousands of structures will be completely destroyed, and millions of people will find themselves homeless.
It is believed that those quakes shook an area ten times larger than that impacted by the 7.8 San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Some of the giant cracks that opened up in the ground were up to five miles long, and the stench of fire and brimstone hung in the air for months afterwards.
Fortunately, the middle of the country was not heavily populated in 1811 and 1812, so the overall amount of damage was not that great.
The Midwest was sparsely populated, and deaths were few. But 8-year-old Godfrey Lesieur saw the ground “rolling in waves.” Michael Braunm observed the river suddenly rise up “like a great loaf of bread to the height of many feet.” Sections of riverbed below the Mississippi rose so high that part of the river ran backward. Thousands of fissures ripped open fields, and geysers burst from the earth, spewing sand, water, mud and coal high into the air.
Needless to say, if such a disaster happened today the damage would be absolutely catastrophic.
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So could such an earthquake (or worse) strike today? Well, last year the U.S. Geological Survey released a report that warned that the New Madrid fault zone has the “potential for larger and more powerful quakes than previously thought”, and the USGS also admits that the number of significant earthquakes in the middle part of the country has more than quintupled in recent years.
We also know that the U.S. government and large corporations are so concerned about the potential for a major New Madrid earthquake that they have held major exercises that simulate one. Scientists tell us that it is just a matter of time until another superquake hits the region, and personally I am one of the millions of Americans that believe that we will eventually see a New Madrid earthquake that will divide the United States in half. That is one of the reasons why I included a New Madrid earthquake in my novel.
But others are skeptical. They point out that we have not seen a truly devastating earthquake in that region for more than 200 years.
The mid west region is preparing for earthquakes that are bigger and more powerful than ever believed imaginable.
The U.S. Geological Survey updated their seismic hazards map last week, and in it, Kentucky is listed as one of 16 states at highest risk of earthquakes.
USGS says the New Madrid Fault, which runs through a number of midwestern states, has been identified as an area that has potential for larger and more powerful quakes than previously thought.
Far Western Kentucky is highlighted on the map as being an area of “high risk.” Geoscientists say if a major earthquake hits along the New Madrid Fault, damage and possibly even fatalities could reach as far as Louisville, Ky.
“If you do get a very high magnitude earthquake–and it’s very possible at any time without any warning–then we would have deaths in Louisville,” said Dr. Gerald Ruth, a geo scientist and professor at Indiana University Southeast.
Ruth adds that if a big quake hits the region, there will be plenty of aftershocks. He said unlike California, which experiences little tremors all the time, tension is built up in the midwest.
“In California, earthquakes are very common and the release of tectonic activity is quick and fast and the time for aftershocks is limited,” said Ruth. “If we had a significant earthquake here, aftershocks would linger for months.”
High school science teacher Bob Rollings ran the seismometer at Floyd Central High School until retiring last year. He says the region has been due for a big quake for some time.
Some seismologists, he says, believe that a major event-much like the magnitude 7 or 8 quakes that shook New Madrid in 1811–is due to hit every 200 years.
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