It’s no secret that the West Coast is waiting for The Big One. From fictionalized versions like the movie San Andreas (which, although full of dramatic special effects and creative license, still had a few things to teach us) to unsettling novels like Cascadia, which is all the more alarming for its scientific accuracy, everyone is imagining that the worst could be headed the way of Washington, Oregon, and California.
There is a basis in reality for this. Some scientists predict the Cascadia Fault could erupt with the biggest earthquake in recorded history. Others feel that the San Andreas Fault will be the one to go first.
The earthquake worries are official.
And this summer, the government has gotten involved. We all know that once they actually warn the public, an event is usually nigh.
Between June 7 and June 10th FEMA ran an exercise called Cascadia Rising to test their response to a mega-quake and/or tsunami hitting the US West Coast. From the FEMA website:
June 7-10, 2016 Emergency Operations and Coordination Centers (EOC/ECCs) at all levels of government and the private sector will activate to conduct a simulated field response operation within their jurisdictions and with neighboring communities, state EOCs, FEMA, and major military commands.
Conducting successful life-saving and life-sustaining response operations in the aftermath of a Cascadia Subduction Zone disaster will hinge on the effective coordination and integration of governments at all levels – cities, counties, state agencies, federal officials, the military, tribal nations – as well as non-government organizations and the private sector. 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.
Recent subduction zone earthquakes around the world underscore the catastrophic impacts we will face when the next CSZ earthquake and tsunami occurs in our region:
Indonesia (2004): M9.1 — 228,000 fatalities
Chile (2010): M8.8 — 500 fatalities
Japan (2011): M9.0 — 18,000 fatalities
The Cascadia Subduction Zone off the coast of North America spans from northern California to southern British Columbia. This subduction zone can produce earthquakes as large as magnitude 9 and corresponding tsunamis. Scientific evidence indicates that a magnitude 8.0-9.0 earthquake occurs along the 800-mile long fault on average once every 200 to 500 years. The last major earthquake and tsunami along the fault occurred over 300 years ago in 1700.
In addition to the Cascadia Fault, the West Coast has to deal with anything the San Andreas Fault throws at it. There is a major difference between the two: The Cascadia is a silent fault. It doesn’t slip and tremble giving off small earthquakes as the San Andreas does. When it goes it goes in one fell swoop, ‘unzipping’ along either part or all of its length and unleashing a mega-quake.
And don’t forget the New Madrid Fault.
In October a massive drill called ‘The Great ShakeOut‘ will take place across in earthquake zones across the country including the Mid-West – home of the New Madrid Seismic Zone. The New Madrid Fault runs from The New Madrid Fault runs for more than 130 miles, from Cairo Illinois to Marked Tree in Arkansas with the upper end of it lying beneath the Mississippi Delta, an area peppered with 15 nuclear power stations.
There are major concerns that the New Madrid Fault is building up to a major earthquake. It has happened before.
In 1811-1812 the New Madrid fault gave rise to three large earthquakes all of which were followed by incredibly strong aftershocks. From USGS:
A Sequence of Three Main Shocks in 1811-1812
This sequence of three very large earthquakes is usually referred to as the New Madrid earthquakes, after the Missouri town that was the largest settlement on the Mississippi River between St. Louis, Missouri and Natchez, Mississippi. On the basis of the large area of damage (600,000 square kilometers), the widespread area of perceptibility (5,000,000 square kilometers), and the complex physiographic changes that occurred, the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 rank as some of the largest in the United States since its settlement by Europeans. They were by far the largest east of the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. and Canada. The area of strong shaking associated with these shocks is two to three times as large as that of the 1964 Alaska earthquake and 10 times as large as that of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. (My emphasis)
Back in the 1800’s the area was sparsely populated…but not so now. Millions of people live in the zone and would be directly impacted by a major quake caused by the New Madrid Fault.
So why would FEMA need to have such a major drill in June when the countrywide Great ShakeOut drill was planned for October anyway?
Maybe because the Cascadia Fault rupturing would be the biggest disaster the United States has ever faced. Oregon State University researcher Chris Goldfinger has collected dozens of core samples from along the zone. He says these cores show evidence of 19 quakes of magnitude 9 or greater that ripped the entire length of the subduction zone in the past 10,000 years. An average of one mega-thrust quake every 526 years. The last one happened in 1700. The problem is the whole fault doesn’t have to slip to cause a massive earthquake and the same core samples show evidence that the southern end of the fault slips more often, on average every 250 years. The last time was 1700 – 316 years ago.
Maybe the final words should be from Gov. Jay Inslee:
When the megaquake hits, “hundreds of thousands of people will have to wait days, weeks and months for their electricity to be restored,” Inslee said in a news conference to kick off Cascadia Rising.
“They will have to wait a considerable period of time to have water service to their homes,” he added. “So having a basic emergency kit in homes, in cars, in offices, is absolutely essential for everybody who lives in our great state.” (source)
At the very least, you should have on hand emergency food, supplies for a power outage, drinking water, and alternative sanitation. If FEMA is actively urging people to prepare, an event could be coming sooner than we think.