The Big One

The Pacific Northwest – known for its microbreweries, breath-taking scenery, and locals who inexplicably love our dreary 10-month winters – is due for an earthquake. But how soon? How bad will it be? And what can we do to prepare for it?
Jemma Everyhope-Roser
WWU Geology Professor Jackie Caplan- Auerbach studies earthquakes in volcanic systems. Volcanoes on land, she says, cannot generate tsunami. Her quake survival advice: ”Don't run outside. Earthquakes don’t kill people. Falling buildings do.”

The Pacific Northwest – known for its microbreweries, breath-taking scenery, and locals who inexplicably love our dreary 10-month winters – is due for an earthquake. But how soon? How bad will it be? And what can we do to prepare for it?

Questions like these have the power to keep us up at night. So we turned to a few of Western Washington University’s experts for the answers.

Jackie Caplan-Auerbach, a professor of Geology at Western who studies earthquakes in volcanic systems, says that geology’s a young science, and thus scientists are still gathering data on predicting long-range hazards like the so-called Big One. A massive 9.0 earthquake could bulldoze the Pacific Northwest in 80 years, 280 years – or tomorrow.

But where would an earthquake like that originate? Could iconic Mount Baker be to blame? How about Rainier? Both are volcanoes.

Volcanoes on land, Caplan-Auerbach explains, can rarely generate earthquakes higher than magnitude 4 and that cannot create tsunami.

But tectonic earthquakes, caused by massive pieces of the Earth’s crust crushing into each other? That’s our culprit.

As the Juan de Fuca plate presses under the North American plate, it gets stuck; then, suddenly, it slips. That lurch is a tectonic earthquake. These quakes ripple across a plate’s surface, disturbing buildings, bridges, and water mains – and maybe generating a tsunami.

Yes, tsunamis are possible here. Caplan-Auerbach informs me there’s even a fault inside the Puget Sound that could generate a localized tsunami. Though, of course, cities along the Pacific coast itself face greater danger.

As the Earth bucks and shivers beneath our feet, we face an additional threat – liquefaction. Loosely packed sediment may shift, allowing water to seep through and transform seemingly solid earth into the quagmire it secretly is.

While that may produce some toe-wiggling fun at the beach, it’s significantly less wonderful when it happens beneath your house. Structures built on coastal areas, near rivers, or on floodplains, are at risk. But at least homeowners can learn more about their own property’s risk by looking up how their neighborhood would fare in various earthquake scenarios.

Buildings bend – or break

“If a building is brittle,” Caplan-Auerbach adds, “it will break. Buildings need to flex. Even wood will flex better than brick.” Her own office, even though its cement walls are chock-full of rebar, was built before the enactment of certain seismic codes and could suffer damage in a quake.

Caplan-Auerbach also has a special warning for campus, where our beautiful buildings, some brick and some brick facade, pose a risk: “Don’t run outside. Earthquakes don’t kill people. Falling buildings do. Unreinforced masonry will come down. Get under a desk or a table.”

Jim Mullen (’70, M.Ed., Student Personnel Administration), who served as the emergency management chief for the city of Seattle and the state of Washington, has additional advice for living through a quake. Sheltering in doorframes or under bedcovers isn’t a good option. He likes to advise citizens to ride out the waves under something solid, keeping their heads down.

Mullen also agrees with Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Rebekah Paci-Green that surviving the initial disaster isn’t nearly as problematic as getting through the days that follow.

Paci-Green, whose international research focuses on the safety of school buildings following earthquakes, is also director of Western’s Resilience Institute. She wrote “Cascadia Rising,” a gripping 180-page narrative description of what could happen during and after a 9.0 quake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone. The New Yorker drew on her work for last summer’s panicinducing article, “The Really Big One,” and FEMA will use “Cascadia Rising” for training exercises in 2016.

Since Paci-Green literally wrote the book on this, I ask her: Will The Big One really be this bad?


Paci-Green reviewed estimates from HAZUS, FEMA’s computer modeling system for emergency scenarios; for “Cascadia Rising,” at their request, she took a look at the 90th percentile of a 9.0 earthquake, basically the worst case of a worst case scenario.

“This scenario is possible,” Paci-Green says, “but it’s also extreme.”

But it could also be worse.

HAZUS’ worst-of-the-worst could actually underestimate damages. While HAZUS can accurately model how buildings withstand trauma, it doesn’t account for aftershocks or, because the government has little data on the private sector, how utilities or communications may be disrupted.

The upcoming FEMA practice event will be a region-wide, multi-day exercise that calls on not only FEMA itself but also the region’s police and fire agencies, emergency managers, hospitals, military and local governments. On the day of the exercise, officials will enter their ops rooms and receive a report: How would they proceed if half their staff is missing? How would they allocate resources if a school and a utilities plant are both on fire – but they only have one truck to send? It’s these hard, stress-inducing decisions that make the scenario so realistic. As it wears on, the officials receive “injects,” which complicate the scenario even further.

“These exercises are necessary. They’re hard. They’re good,” Paci-Green says. “And they’re really expensive to put on.”

“Whenever you do an exercise,” Mullen says, “improvements follow.”

Get ready

In the advent of a real disaster, both Mullen and Paci-Green warn that the National Guard and FEMA will take at least two days to provide any aid to citizens, and may take up to two weeks to fully mobilize. “There’s no way for them to act faster,” Paci-Green says.

That’s why it’s important for ordinary people to display self-reliance until help can reach them, their families and their neighbors.

“An earthquake of substance could bring us to our knees,” Mullen says. “What we really have to think about is: How would we establish an organizational framework to recover from the most ungodly event we can imagine?”

Mullen, after about 25 years in emergency management, is accustomed to thinking about how these events would unfold on a grander scale. He’d consider questions like: How much emergency funds would the state need and how quickly could we get it? Who would establish the legal authority to shut down roads, or take other emergency actions? Where would we put the rescuers’ base of operations? Who would be allowed into damaged areas? Residents? What about business owners, their employees and customers? All those people suddenly out of work – could they be mobilized as part of the recovery effort? What would the construction industry need to recover? How about transit? Schools? How would we establish supply lines that would operate for months – or even years – while we repair our infrastructure?

“The biggest issue,” Mullen says, “is how do we get all of that infrastructure up at once?”

Mullen cites indirect economic impacts as a prominent concern. After a massive event, businesses would move, maybe even out of the state. Schools may close, causing the workforce to stay home with their families. People may relocate to less damaged areas.

“It could cripple our economy, not for years, but for decades,” Paci-Green adds.

But the good news is, Mullen says, “There’s no reason for anyone to be surprised. There is an earthquake coming. It will be bad. How we prepare for it will determine how we recover.”

“It’s hard,” Paci-Green says, “but I’m heartened by the steps communities are taking.”

Caplan-Auerbach calls on ordinary people to support local government initiatives to improve infrastructure: “These hazards exist. They are real. But we can minimize damage. Infrastructure costs money, but damage costs more.”

is a writer and editor in Bellingham – and the program assistant in Western’s Office of Communications and Marketing.

Rhys Logan