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Is Seattle Prepared for a Major Earthquake?

Last updated on November 1, 2019

Seeah L., Junior

Rumors of “the big earthquake” – a catastrophe destined to decimate life on the western seaboard – has circulated mainstream media for the past couple of years. For many, the notion of this drastic event sparks overwhelming foreboding. Is this widespread fear rational? Is our local Seattle community prepared for the desolation this potential disaster could produce?

In contrast to the recent hurricanes and wildfires that have desecrated American communities, the Pacific Northwest has had a fairly hazard-less record for the past centuries. However, this pleasant ride is predicted to come to an abrupt end with the mega-quake on the Cascadia Fault, a subduction zone that runs from Vancouver Island down to northern California, crossing right through the heart of the Seattle region. After numerous studies, seismologists have concluded that this fault is on the precipice of a major earthquake, with a 40% likelihood to occur in the next 50 years. Historically, one mega-quake occurs every 300 years and the last high magnitude quake recorded in the Northwest was in the 1700s.

So just how severe would this mega-quake be? Scientists have estimated that the magnitude would reach a striking 9.0 on the Richter scale, which is equivalent to the energy released by 25,000 nuclear bombs. Additionally, the seismic waves of the earthquake would trigger a tsunami that could reach a height of 100 feet. Luckily, Seattle’s location is far enough inland that it would be protected from such waves. On the other hand, coastal communities in Washington and Oregon would face a humanitarian crisis, with a predicted 10,000 casualties and 30 billion dollars in damage.

Following the prediction of the Cascadia Fault quake, geophysicists have recently discovered a smaller, shallower fault that lies directly under our city, known as the Seattle Fault. This zone is connected with other shallow faults, including the Tacoma Fault and Olympia Fault, which all pose danger to their specific region. If one of these faults were triggered by the Cascadia Fault megaquake, there is a chance that it would create a bigger quake with a magnitude of 8.0.

Cascadia fault

Although the magnitude of the Cascadia Fault megaquake is predicted to be alarmingly high, the bigger concern of many Seattleites is the Seattle Fault due to its proximity to the region. The Seattle Government has predicted that a quake of just 7.0 on the Seattle Fault could destroy 80 bridges in the Seattle metro area, and could cause over 1,500 deaths and 20,000 injuries. Ferry terminals, port facilities, high rise office buildings, and hospitals are all at extreme risk of destruction if the megaquake were to occur. Without basic public facilities, the city and its civilians cannot hope to properly function.

As the question is no longer the possibility of a mega-quake, public concern now turns to whether the targeted region is prepared for this disaster. In 2010, earthquake expert Peter Yanev wrote an editorial in the New York Times, calling out Seattle for their poor preparation for the predicted earthquake. He asserted that “Pacific Northwest cities are full of buildings with slender structural frames and fewer and smaller shear walls. In a mega-quake, many of the region’s iconic tall buildings could probably collapse.”  Similarly, notable geologist Rob Witter stated, “The amount of devastation is going to be unbelievable, and people aren’t going to be ready for this.”

Although scientists are not able to estimate the precise date of the megaquake, it is within the community’s ability to prepare for this disaster, both on a short-term and long-term basis. An immediate risk threatening civilians is the collapse of older brick buildings. With Seattle’s noticeable abundance of these old-fashioned structures, architects must prioritize earthquake designs when building properties. For private residences, families can retrofit their homes by securing the walls to the cement foundation. Unfortunately, retrofitting homes is an expensive maneuver, costing an average of $5,000, and consequently may not be an option for some families. However, there are other ways of securing one’s safety in the possibility of an earthquake: assembling an emergency kit with food, water and first aid supplies is essential to adequately preparing. According to the American Red Cross, it is imperative that each household is equipped with preservable food, battery-powered or hand cranked radio, flashlight, first aid kit, and a whistle to signal for help. To find a complete list of recommended items, visit the American Red Cross’s online site or other humanitarian organizations. Although the need for these items may seem unlikely, collecting them could potentially save a life! Better safe than sorry!

Altogether, the potential of this catastrophe isn’t 100% guaranteed within our lifetimes, so those living in a perpetual state of fear are indeed acting irrational. Nevertheless, in the case that such an event were to occur, each individual should be adequately prepared with the necessary supplies for survival. Civilians of Seattle must work as a collective force to best prepare their community for the possibility of such devastation.

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