New York Times article was written about two years ago, shortly after the deadly 2010 earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, and almost exactly one year before the catastrophic 2011 tremor and tsunami in northeastern Japan. I read it again recently when a friend posted it on Facebook. Its tone is every bit as ominous now as it was when first published, when the aforementioned disasters were fresh in everyone's minds.
Seattle is an easy place to live. It has cool, comfortable summers and temperate winters. It's arguably blessed with one of the most majestic natural settings of any major U.S. city, surrounded by mountains, forests, and water. There's a lot of culture here. The people are laid-back and progressive. They flock outdoors anytime there's a ray of sunshine, and, when there's not, they simply console themselves with a book or movie and a coffee or beer (sometimes all at once).
The problem is, because of all those factors, most of them don't think of their city as a place where a large-scale disaster could strike. Those types of things happen in other places, like Japan. Or Chile. Or Haiti. The low-key, life-is-good vibe here in the Northwest — coupled with our geographical isolation — leads people to adapt that mentality. Even if they acknowledge the risk, it's not at the forefront of anyone's thinking. No one (perhaps with the exception of me) is sitting around waiting for the ground to start shaking.
Heck, if a major earthquake is going to hit the continental United States, surely it will take place in Los Angeles first, right? Or San Francisco?
Ironically, that may be exactly why Seattle sucks at preparing for this type of thing. People expect that it will strike somewhere in California, because it already does with some frequency. Not so in the Northwest. The last significant earthquake in Seattle was the 6.8-magnitude Nisqually earthquake back in February 2001. Many people living here today weren't then.
I'm one of those people. I've lived here for five years as of April 23 and still have yet to feel a single earthquake (even though micro-quakes happen here all the time). I grew up in the Midwest, where blizzards, ice storms, and tornadoes were threats almost every year, and where I experienced all three. There was a sense of preparedness there for those types of crises. Throughout my years of school, we had regular tornado drills in the fall and spring.
I believe that Washington conducts an annual statewide earthquake drill, but my workplace doesn't participate in it. Obviously, it isn't required, except in schools. There's a palpable attitude of complacency elsewhere.
Complacency tends to stem from a lack of perceived exposure to threats, which is exactly the problem in this part of the country. There are big geological risks in the Pacific Northwest, but they rarely make themselves known. Mount Rainier hasn't erupted for as long as any of us have been alive — but when it does again, the results could be catastrophic. Earthquakes don't happen often, but as long as there's a chance for one with a magnitude of 9.0 or higher to hit every several hundred years (and, with the last one having struck in 1700, many geologists believe we're overdue), we shouldn't act like it's not a possibility.
But we do. Perhaps it's because I work for a humanitarian organization that responds to disasters around the world — or maybe it's because I'm constantly envisioning the worst-possible scenarios (more explanation on that in a later post) — but sometimes I imagine how Seattle would fare if the Big One struck in the near future. How would our buildings hold up? How about our bridges? The author of the New York Times column doesn't paint a pretty picture.
And he doesn't even speak to how the people would react. How many would know what to do? Would first responders (police, fire, medical) be prepared? That's all heavy stuff to think about.
I don't mean to go all apocalyptic, but we've got a massive subduction zone lying just off the West Coast of the United States. Picture last year's devastation in Japan. By any standard, that's a country well-prepared for such disasters. Seattle decidedly is not. How much worse might it be here?
No one can single-handedly equip an entire region for a disaster that might happen tomorrow, a year from now, or 100 years from now. But this is me saying I won't be surprised when it does, if I'm still around (and, hopefully, no one reading this post will be).