We naive human beings spend such a short time on Earth that we get a twisted concept of time. When we hear something bad happened 300 years ago, we think it ancient. When we hear it might happen again in 200 years, we shrug. When we hear it might happen in 200 years or next week, we assume 200 years is more likely.
In geologic time, that 500 years is a beat faster than a ticking clock. It is a frequent event. Our complacency is all too human and dangerous, yet we seek comfort in ignorance. Geologic disasters like massive earthquakes or volcanic eruptions are not here and now, we think. They are in history books. If they do strike, they hit the unfortunate poor in some distant and exotic land and we will watch on CNN. Even when Mount St. Helens was smoking and bulging we thought volcanic eruptions were someone else’s problem. Curious people now no longer with us crept in for a closer look. We knew it could happen. We could see it. Still, we were surprised and unprepared.
Better that we pause to consider what we will do when the inevitable happens, and a megathrust earthquake strikes at the Cascadia Subduction Zone, the region of grinding tectonic plates just 40 miles off our coast. The quake geologists are certain is coming will be perhaps a magnitude 9.0, more than 1,000 times stronger than the Nisqually quake of 2001 that nearly knocked down the state Capitol, or the 1872 quake near Lake Chelan that triggered slides so massive they blocked the mighty Columbia. The quake will be followed in minutes by a speeding tsunami 30- to 60-feet high that will devastate coastal communities and rip across the North Pacific. The last Cascadia megathrust hit Jan. 24, 1700, the date determined by civic records in Japan, where the resulting tsunami washed away entire villages. Geologists say such quakes occur here every 300 to 500 years. Add that up. Geologically, the odds are not in complacency’s favor.
So it is slightly comforting that this week the many agencies with responsibility in emergencies are part of an earthquake drill called Cascadia Rising. Headed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the event has as many as 20,000 participants, making it perhaps the largest disaster preparedness drill in the nation’s history. They are testing command, control and coordination in a world without communication, without passable roads, without water, power, food distribution, functioning hospitals, where tens of thousands are dead or injured or missing, hazardous materials are everywhere spilled, where waves have washed much away and thousands of bridges and buildings are laid waste or sunk in the quake-liquified soil. How many of us will die in the quake? That’s guesswork, but the megathrust that struck Japan in 2011 killed 16,000. The magnitude 9.1 quake that hit Indonesia in 2004 killed 228,000.
FEMA tested community cooperation and coordination in the face of unimaginable catastrophe. The exercise certainly was helpful. It is a useful to consider what may happen, and what will happen. The catastrophe will bring chaos, and days and weeks when our modern, comfortable life will be forgotten.
Then again, even in relatively small disasters, almost nothing goes as expected. In this coming quake, which may be the largest natural disaster to strike North America in our history, the best of plans will likely disappear. That does not mean planning has no value, or preparing for what we think might happen will do no good. We potential victims are asked to prepare ourselves for the struggle, with stores of food, water, lights, batteries, etc., even far from the coast. We who are here for just a short time are not granted exemptions.