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Most people know the San Andreas fault line that runs the length of California. But geologists studying the Pacific Northwest say the lesser-known Cascadia fault line is much more dangerous. New research using land deposits found at the bottom of the ocean points to a one in three chance of a major earthquake in the Pacific Northwest in the next 50 years. Worst case scenarios have 13,000 people dying and more than a million displaced; the tsunami that would likely follow would further devastate the region in a similar way to Japan’s 2011 tsunami. We look at the risk of a super earthquake on the Pacific Coast and what cities are doing to prepare for it.
- Barry Scanlon Co-Founder, DCMC Partners, a crisis management and public safety consulting firm that helps with recovery from crises and disasters; former Senior Advisor at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under President Clinton (1993 – 2001)
- Kathryn Schulz Staff writer, The New Yorker magazine
- Chris Goldfinger Professor, geology and geophysics, Oregon State University
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Scientists now say there's a one in three chance a major earthquake will hit the Pacific Northwest within the next 50 years. If so, major cities like Seattle and Portland would suffer thousands of casualties and economic devastation on a scale never before seen in North America.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to discuss the Cascadia Subduction Zone, when it could rupture and what can be done to prepare for it, Barry Scanlon, he's former advisor at FEMA under President Clinton, from a studio in Bend, Oregon, Kathryn Schulz of The New Yorker magazine and from a studio in Corvallis, Oregon, Chris Goldfinger of Oregon State University.
MS. DIANE REHMI do invite you to be, as always, part of the program. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to all of you.
MR. BARRY SCANLONGood morning, Diane.
MR. CHRIS GOLDFINGERGood morning, Diane.
MS. KATHRYN SCHULZGood morning.
REHMKathryn Schulz, I'd like to start with you and ask you about the wildfires going on out there in Oregon. How close are you? I know you're in Portland. How close are you? What are you seeing?
SCHULZWell, you know, actually, this particular week -- you're right, I'm normally in Portland for the summer. I'm down in central Oregon at the moment in Bend and the truth is I've been tucked away in a cabin about an hour from here for most of the week and I've been -- I've got no access to news down there so I have very limited information about what's going on except for for my senses.
SCHULZWhat I can tell you, I gather the wildfires burning on the Warm Springs Reservation. Down here in Bend, we're seeing haze basically. It's not good running weather. You cough when you go out there. You get a lung full of it. The mountains are kind of fuzzed out. But no flames in sight.
REHMAnd what about you, Chris Goldfinger?
GOLDFINGERWell, the Willamette Valley is filled up with smoke. The whole east side of the valley is just full of dense smoke. And I was up in the Columbia Gorge last weekend when there was a huge fire just up by Mt. Adams that was building 50,000 or so foot thunderstorms on top of it. It was pretty incredible. All the local campgrounds are closed down because they're full of firefighters and it's pretty much occupying the whole region right now.
REHMHow unusual are these fires for Oregon, Chris?
GOLDFINGERNot unusual at all. It's a normal summer thing, but this summer is really started almost in April so it's much longer and hotter than usual. We've had runs of 100 degree weather for several of them that have dried the whole place out.
GOLDFINGERSo it's a big fire season.
REHMAll right. Kathryn Schulz, earthquakes aren't your normal beat for The New Yorker. You're primarily a book critic for the magazine. So how come you came to write about earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest?
SCHULZWell, a couple factors. I mean, the background is that I love science in general and geology in particular so it was an idea I was kind of primed to be attracted to. But I lived in Portland for a while in the '90s and I come back every year. I've got a bunch of family out here. I've got a bunch of friends out here so I was quite surprised last year when someone told me about the Cascadia Subduction Zone and I had never heard of it.
SCHULZAnd I thought, you know, I'm a journalist. I'm a big consumer of media. If I've never heard about this really significant seismic threat out here, that's worrisome. That means that somehow awareness in the region is not where it should be. I mean, not that I'm a perfect Litmus test, but it struck me as odd that something so potentially catastrophic had flown relatively under the radar and then I started looking into it and asking around and aside from my own ignorance, the story itself just seem manifestly important and also just fascinating.
REHMAll right. And I want to let listeners know that your latest piece titled "The Really Big One" and your follow-up piece to that "How To Stay Safe When The Big One Comes" both appear at our website, drshow.org. Chris Goldfinger, talk about the Cascadia Subduction Zone. What is it and why is it so unique?
GOLDFINGERWell, Diane, the Cascadia is what I call a typical subduction zone. It has one oceanic plate sliding underneath a continental plate. That's normally what they do. Subduction zones are -- make up what's known as the ring of fire around the Pacific and into Indonesia as well. So we're not rare or unusual in the sense that we're just like all the subduction zones and that's what makes it worrisome because all the other subduction zones are known to generate very large earthquakes.
GOLDFINGERAnd Cascadia is one of the few in human history or at least in recorded history that haven't and so that attracted a lot of attention back in the '60s when plate tectonics first sort of revolutionized our understanding of the earth. Cascadia immediately became sort of an enigma, a subduction zone without earthquakes and that attracted a lot of attention. So the short version of that is, it turns out it does generate great earthquakes and it's just been too long since the last one so there's no recorded seismicity from it.
GOLDFINGERBut the Native Americans were well aware of it and the last event in the year 1700 was -- they were here for that.
REHMSo what does the geological data tell you about the risk, the chances of a major earthquake in the Northwest region, Chris?
GOLDFINGERWell, pretty much everything we know about the risk from Cascadia comes from geology which is a little unusual. It usually comes from seismology. But in this case, all the attention on Cascasdia has been towards what's known as paleo seismology and that's evidence of past earthquakes. And so, from that, for example, we know the last earthquake was in the year 1700 about on January 26, actually, and a tsunami from that earthquake arrived in Japan and caused damage in that year.
GOLDFINGERSo we actually know that it was January 26 about 9 o'clock at night from Brian Atwater's work and so from that, we also know that the magnitude of that earthquake was somewhere near 9. It's a little hard to pin down, but close to 9, which is similar to the Japanese earthquake. So the paradigm these days for Cascadia is that it, in fact, generates magnitude 9 earthquakes and probably other sizes as well and that we know quite a bit from paleo seismology up and down the coast, that it generates at the north end, these large earthquakes about every 500 years and at the south end, roughly every 250 years.
GOLDFINGERAnd it's been 315 since the last one, so we're in the middle of a seismic cycle and we're -- the question is, on the human side, you know, what's the next earthquake going to be like and roughly when would it be and that's mostly what I've been working on for the last 20 years.
REHMAnd Barry Scanlon, you're a former senior FEMA official. You were quoted in Kathryn's piece as saying that if there is a major earthquake, everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast. Talk about that.
SCANLONWell, Kathryn can speak more to this. I was a current FEMA official who made that comment, but yes, there are obviously, as the planning scenarios that Kathryn mentions in article, FEMA does those for all the high hazard areas of the United States so they can plan for what they need to have and certainly, there will be, especially if there's tsunamis, great loss of life, great loss and damage to infrastructure, which is why I think while Kathryn's piece is very compelling, it's also very responsible.
SCANLONIt doesn't try to scare anyone. It presents the facts and the facts are people need to work to be better prepared and...
REHMAnd how do they prepare for something as huge as that?
SCANLONWell, there's never -- after 20 years of trying to convince people to do more preparedness and more prevention, you know, it's very tough. There's not always a lot of money for it and there's not always a direct return on investment. So the important thing is for people to, when they invest in this, do it for all hazards. If there are families who are more prepared and businesses who are more prepared in the Northwest or around the United States, they might not have the earthquake, but they could have an ice storm or following the fires that you mentioned, with el Nino coming, there'll be mudslides.
SCANLONSo there will always be the next event. And if they can be better prepared, it's good for the economy, it's good for their families.
REHMWhat about Seattle? Is Seattle preparing?
SCANLONSeattle, thankfully, for many years, when we were at FEMA, we had a project called Project Impact, building disaster resistant communities. Even then, they had some innovative programs where, as Kathryn mentions in her piece, for a very small amount of money, people can bolt their houses to the foundations and that will save your home, save lives and save a ton of money for the houses.
SCANLONAnd they had a tool-sharing program in Seattle where your average person might not be able to afford several thousand worth of tools, but take it out of the library do the work, put it back and other families can use it. So they've had a lot of programs out there for many years. They have a group that's -- the big thing in this, Diane, because there's never enough money is partnership. So the public and the private sector working together, there's a group out there called the Cascadia regional earthquake workgroup crew and it's everyone from Microsoft down to local mayors and everyone in between.
SCANLONAnd they've done a lot of good work. They started in the mid to late '90s.
REHMBarry Scanlon, he's co-founder of DCMC Partners. That's a crisis management and public safety consulting firm. He's a former senior advisor at FEMA. Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about earthquakes along the Pacific Coast, specifically the Pacific Northwest. Kathryn Schulz is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. Her latest piece on the subject is titled, "The Really Big One." And her follow-up piece is "How to Stay Safe When the Big One Comes." Both those articles appear at our website, drshow.org, originally published in The New Yorker magazine. Here in the studio with me, Barry Scanlon. He is a former senior adviser at the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Clinton. And Chris Goldfinger is professor of geology and geophysics at Oregon State University.
REHMKathryn Schulz, it's not just an earthquake risk but also a tsunami risk. Talk about why.
SCHULZRight. So when this earthquake hits -- as Chris was explaining, we have an oceanic plate that's subducting, I mean, sliding beneath a continental plate that's North America basically. The continental plate is essentially stuck against the oceanic plate. What's going to cause the earthquake is it's going to give way. It's kind of like a spring. You're pushing it against the wall, you're pushing it against the wall, at some point you release. It pops back out. That's the earthquake. And some of that land popping back out is going to happen underneath the ocean. It displaces a huge amount of water.
SCHULZThat water kind of swells up into a big wave, collapses, and half of it -- the eastern half -- is going to come rushing toward the coastline of the Pacific Northwest -- I should say the fault itself is slightly offshore. That's why we get the tsunami. It's a when, not an if. There's no question about whether this earthquake will produce a tsunami. It has to, kind of in terms of the geophysical dynamics going on. And that is one of the really challenging and alarming things about this scenario. It's not one natural disaster, it's two linked natural disasters.
SCHULZThe first one infinitely complicates our ability to respond to the second one. And the second one is really devastating. We're fortunate in that the coast of the Pacific Northwest is not massively populated the way that it was in Indonesia and in Japan. But still we've got a lot of towns and some cities in the area. We're got a lot of people who live inside the tsunami inundation zone: industries, energy plants, hospitals, old-age homes, bed and breakfasts, you name it. And for those within the tsunami inundation zone, this is a crisis. That area is unsurvivable. The safe option is to not be in it when this earthquake happens.
REHMHere's an email from Barbara. Kathryn, she says, "How much are Seattle-Tacoma protected by the Olympic Peninsula?
SCHULZWell, so to be clear, the tsunami does not affect the entire region that the earthquake affects. In fact it affects just a kind of skinny little portion of it, right along the coast. That's -- although a huge amount of water is going to be displaced, it can't travel very far. At most, we're talking about the water from the tsunami reaching inland a handful of miles. So all the major cities in the region: Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, Eugene, Vancouver -- these are -- they don't have to worry about tsunami risk at all. It's not going to travel up the Puget Sound and hit downtown Seattle. This is really a problem that will only affect the coast, at least in direct terms.
SCHULZOf course, it's going to affect the region and the entire country...
SCHULZ...in terms of the economic impact, in terms of the, frankly, essentially a refugee crisis. But water reaching there? No. That's just the coastline itself.
GOLDFINGERIf I can add just a little bit to that.
GOLDFINGERYeah, there was a misconception maybe that a hundred foot wall of water was going to wipe out Seattle. And that's certainly not the case, as Kathryn pointed out. There will be a little bit of a tsunami that makes it -- winds its way up the Juan de Fuca Straight. But it's -- the latest modeling from colleagues at NOAA make it look that that might be one to two meters tall, a relatively small tsunami. But even that will do some damage along the waterfronts.
REHMHere's a comment from Philip on Facebook. He says, "Please ask your guests to discuss the nature of stress and movement on the fault in the Pacific Northwest because it's a subduction fault, not a strike slip like the fault in San Andreas. In Southern California, the continental plates are sliding past each other. In the Pacific Northwest, the oceanic plate is being pushed under the continental plate. The dragging force creates uplift in the coast range mountains. When the stress is relieved, the entire coast could drop 100 feet in elevation. The epicenter of a quake is likely to be very deep below the surface of the earth." Chris.
GOLDFINGERWell, that was a lot of elements in there. Just, I'll take the last part first. The entire coast range isn't going to drop 100 feet. That won't happen. It does -- the uplift of the coast range does have to do with the subduction zone though. And it will drop half a meter to a meter or so. And that's what causes the subsidence of the whole coast. But a point buried in there is that, you know, the difference between a subduction zone and a strike-slip fault is really important. People know the San Andreas fault really well and they know that it destroyed San Francisco in 1956 and could do something similar to Los Angeles in the near future.
GOLDFINGERBut the size of those earthquakes are roughly limited to about magnitude 8, just by the nature of, as he says, a strike-slip fault -- the plates sliding side by side. In a subduction zone, you have a plate diving underneath another plate at a really low angle and it essentially makes the surface area of contact almost unlimited. And that's why subduction zone earthquakes are so much bigger, because surface area is what drives magnitude. So in Cascadia, we have essentially unlimited surface area and our magnitude probably tops out at 9.1 or something like that, which is roughly 30 times more energetic than the San Andreas can do.
REHMSo, Chris, how would a major Pacific Northwest earthquake compare with hurricanes like Katrina or Sandy?
GOLDFINGERWell, in terms of that, you can maybe think about a magnitude 9 subduction zone earthquake -- the area that's affected is 1,000 kilometers, roughly 700 miles long. So you could think of it maybe as four or five Katrinas packed into 700 miles, coming ashore all at the same time, might be a, you know, a rough analogy.
SCHULZAlthough I would just add to that quickly, if I can, that one really salient difference is that we generally know hurricanes are coming. And we don't have a mechanism for predicting an earthquake.
SCHULZSo we're talking about a bunch of Katrinas hitting in an instant, unexpectedly.
REHMAnd to you, Chris -- sorry, Barry Scanlon, what's the biggest worry if this prediction comes true?
SCANLONWell, I think, certainly Kathryn just hit on it, that there's no warning with earthquakes. We all know when tornado season is, even though you only maybe get a 15 or 20 minute warning when those are going on, flooding and hurricanes. So even the best prepared areas -- California had its Seismic Safety Commission in the early '70s. They have a lot of seismic retrofitting that they've done for now 40 years, which has not existed, as the piece mentions, as much in the Pacific Northwest. So you have a combination of the tsunami, which is going to be a definite loss of life across parts of the coast. And, in addition, even if the tsunami didn't occur, you would have loss of life from the lack of seismic retrofitting in the buildings throughout the Pacific Northwest.
REHMBecause they simply have not done that.
SCANLONWell, and Chris can talk more to it, that they weren't aware of this risk when they were implementing some of their building codes over the last 50 years.
REHMAnd, Chris, something else. An email from Joe, "Is anyone doing research on ways to cause smaller quakes in order to minimize the probability of major earthquakes. Recent fracking experience seems to result in many small earthquakes. Can this be applied to major West Coast faults?"
GOLDFINGERWell, that, you know, that question comes up pretty often, surprisingly enough.
GOLDFINGERAnd I can say, categorically, that no, nobody's thinking about any such thing. But in principle -- the principle is correct. If you could somehow release the energy in smaller bits, that would be a great thing. But the forces involved in plate tectonics are so big that the large forces that we could apply, as humans, wouldn't even come close to having any effect on it.
REHMAnd for you, Kathryn, here's an email from Ashley in Pittsburgh. She says, "I read the piece, 'The Really Big One,' in The New Yorker and was amazed I had never heard of the potential for this kind of earthquake before. I've always humored the idea of moving to the Pacific Northwest. But the piece has made certain I am not looking to move there anytime soon. My question for all of you, in particular, Professor Goldfinger, why are you still there awaiting this disaster? And what precautions have you taken, personally?
GOLDFINGEROh, that's a great question. I still live here and, in fact, I'm broadcasting from an unreinforced masonry building on campus, like -- and I work in one too. So I -- it's a fair question. When I came here first as a graduate student in the '80s, I didn't know anything about Cascadia either. I'd never heard of it. It wasn't an earthquake issue at the time. And this sort of evolved as I lived here. And then I got involved in working on it myself. But -- so at this point, I'm just like everyone else in the Northwest. I'm looking around, going, gee, this is a big problem. You know, most of my campus is not retrofitted.
GOLDFINGERMost of Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Victoria, all the cities, Eugene, are not retrofitted to any extent, because this information caught up with the region and we sort of collectively have our pants around our ankles at the moment. So I'm still here though. And what I've done personally in the house that I live in, you know, it's bolted to its foundation. And some of these...
GOLDFINGER...points were brought out in Kathryn's follow-up really well. And Barry mentioned this as well. So bolting your house to your foundation is a great thing to do. Strapping your water heater down, because a lot of houses actually burn down in earthquakes from broken gas lines. And so strapping the water heater and maybe even springing for one of those fancy gas-shutoff valves that shut off -- shuts off gas to the whole house with shaking is a good thing. And then, beyond that, storing some water and food and getting ready for a two- or three-week camping trip in your own house is a good thing to do. And most people have barbeques and camping gear and tents and things like that. So it's not that much of a stretch.
REHMBut you know, I really want to go back to the earlier question about fracking. Here in the Washington area, in West Virginia, in parts of Maryland, we have seen a huge increase in small earthquakes. And people do wonder whether, in fact, those earthquakes have been caused by fracking. So the question becomes, could fracking out there in the Pacific Northwest perhaps affect or bring on even sooner, the big one? Chris.
GOLDFINGERWell, the difference is of scale. Because fracking with oil wells or water wells or whatever, is at a very, very shallow level in the earth's crust. And the subduction zone is offshore in deep water. It's in thousands of meters of water and it's many kilometers down. So even the shallowest point of the subduction zone that generates an earthquake is unreachable by any technology that we have.
REHMHmm. I see.
GOLDFINGERAnd the deepest part, where most of the energy comes from, is five times that deep. So we have really no way to even access a place like that.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And, Kathryn, you're out there now. What has your cabin -- how has your cabin been reinforced?
SCHULZWell, the little spot that I'm in for this week is actually east of the Cascades and therefore reasonably well out of the danger zone. The spot that I live in, in Portland -- I'm only out here for the summer, so I just rent a place. The place I rent is very new construction. It's bolted to the ground. It's very safe. Certainly I have become a massive advocate for seismic safety among my friends and community and total strangers. I'm a backpacker. I just leave that backpack handy so that I could grab it in an emergency...
SCHULZ...on the theory that it already has a first-aid kit, you know, water pump, fuel, everything you might need in this kind of crisis. So, you know, I do what I can and I encourage others to do what I can. From my perspective, there's this kind of dance that goes on with preparedness, which is that there's a lot that individuals can do and there's a lot that they can't do.
SCHULZYou know, a lot of systemic, kind of society-wide problems. I, as an individual, cannot actually fix the Marquam Bridge over the Willamette River in Portland. And of course that does not give me license to not make sure that I, myself, am safe and therefore less of a burden to emergency responders and so on and so forth. But obviously we need to be attacking this problem from both ends.
REHMIn writing this story, I gather you talked to numerous officials in the region. What about the emergency management staff? Are they prepared for a disaster on this scale?
SCHULZYou know, I would say, for the most part they are -- they're incredibly committed and dedicated and working very, very hard. There was a time-lag I think. It took awhile, you know, as Chris was saying, this problem didn't even -- we didn't even know about it in the '80s. We didn't really know about it until the mid '90s. In the scheme of things, that's very recent. And there was some catch-up, right? It took awhile, I think, for emergency management departments to realize how serious this is. Now, I think, most places -- certainly in all the big cities -- really do understand the magnitude of the risk and they're very committed. They're working very, very hard. It's an uphill battle.
SCHULZYou know, something like 70, 80, 90 percent of the City of Portland was built before we had any kind of awareness of this problem, before we had seismic safety codes in place that were even remotely sufficient to address it. And so we're talking about really huge infrastructure overhauls. So a lot of good intentions, a lot of really hard work, still, you know, quite a ways to go to (unintelligible) safer.
REHMYou said the one person who surprised you was Carmen Merlo. Talk about her.
SCHULZWell, a lot of people surprise me. A lot of facts about this story surprise me. But Carmen Merlo is the head of Emergency Management for the City of Portland. I was very, very impressed with her. From what I can tell, she's widely respected across the emergency management community. She built a really effective kind of emergency command center for the City of Portland, which desperately needed one. I think, when I mentioned that she surprised me, the specific comment that caught me off guard was that, apparently by a kind of sociopolitical quirk, the majority -- literally the majority, more than 50 percent of emergency responders for the City of Portland -- so that's, you know, police, ambulance, fire -- do not actually live in Portland.
SCHULZWhich means that when this disaster hits and the bridges go down, we're going to have a real problem.
REHMKathryn Schulz, staff writer for The New Yorker. When we come back, we're going to open the phones, hear your comments and questions. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd it's time to open the phones. We're going to go first to Chatham, Massachusetts. Sean, you're on the air.
SEANYeah, good morning, thank you for taking my call.
SEANI'm taking my son out to Portland in a few days to college. And I'm wondering what kind of question I should ask, or he should ask, the school about the earthquake proving or the construction of the dormitory in which he'll be living.
REHMKathryn, do you want to respond?
SCHULZSure, it's a great question, and congratulations to both of you for thinking about it in advance and being concerned and prepared. You know, the basics, when were the dorms built? Are they to seismic code? If they're not, what kind of plan is in place for doing that? What kind of options do students have for choosing their living situation in accordance with safety concerns? And that would apply, I would say, not just to the dorm rooms but to the other buildings.
SCHULZAnd more broadly to an emergency plan. Does the school have some, you know, training, education? Is there an evacuation protocol? Questions like that.
REHMSean, tell us what school your son is going to.
SEANHe's going to Reed College in Portland. Are there different kinds of earthquake codes and seismic codes? I mean, are there, you know, ones that are rated for, you know, an eight as opposed to a 10?
REHMSure, Barry Scanlon?
SCANLONWell, there's building codes, and this is one of the difficult things about the United States and natural hazards that the building codes are all at the state and local level. So it really depends on what code was adopted. But yes, there's the Seismic Safety Council both of the Northwest and of California that recommends what codes that a Portland or the state of Washington or the state of Oregon would use. And I'd just like to second the congratulations that he's thinking about these things.
SCANLONBut as everyone's looking at going back to school, Diane, you don't need to be in Portland or Seattle. If your child is heading off to college, you should be thinking about these issues wherever they're going.
REHMAbsolutely. Thanks for calling, Sean, good luck. And to Gordon in Cincinnati, Ohio, you're on the air.
GORDONHi Diane, this is Gordon. I love your show.
GORDONThanks for having me.
GORDONHey, my question is, I just came back from a two-week vacation out in the Pacific Northwest. We started in Seattle and worked our way down to Oregon, stayed in Bandon, Oregon, a beautiful little town, all the way down to Frisco and even out to Yosemite. We had a great time, didn't see one fire. We saw just a little haze of smoke. My question is, one lady called and said she's not going to move there now. How does this affect people's tourism plans, their vacation plans? And I'd like to encourage people to go anyway and not change your summer or fall plans because it's a beautiful area to visit, and we had a wonderful time. So my question is how does this affect tourism in general?
REHMSure, and Gordon, I should say that I'm out in Portland at least three times a year for my voice treatments at the Oregon Health Sciences University. I love Portland. But I wonder, Kathryn, what you think the effects on tourism might be as we talk about this.
SCHULZWell, you know, I'm with the caller. I would not discourage anyone from coming out here. It's a beautiful region. There's a lot of ways to enjoy it. There's a risk anywhere you go. That's part of the deal with traveling. And as with any place, the important thing is to know what you're getting into. The one kind of strong caution I give people is that if you're going to go to the coast, figure out the evacuation route. The tsunami is a real risk, and it's the one where, you know, the hazard is highest, and the possibility of really protecting yourself is also highest, in a sense. If you really know how to get out of there, you have a very good chance of escaping unscathed, and if you don't, you really are in grave trouble.
SCHULZSo, you know, the Oregon coast is beautiful, the Washington coast is beautiful. By all means go, but educate yourself before you do it.
REHMHere's an email from Bruce for you, Chris Goldfinger. He says, since there are 12 bridges for the Portland peninsula, what is the earthquake effect on those bridges, and how would people evacuate?
GOLDFINGERWell, that's a good question. When you look at the infrastructure in all the places we live, you find these vulnerabilities, and this person has noted that if all the bridges went down that the western side and eastern side of Portland would be separated. So if it happens when people at work are at work, they won't be able to get home and so forth.
GOLDFINGERAnd so most of the bridges there are in tough shape. Some of them are drawbridges with counterweights that don't do well in earthquakes. And only one or two of them will probably survive. So the traffic back and forth between the two halves of Portland will be almost completely shut down in a significant earthquake. Or if it's a smaller earthquake, maybe it would be reduced by half or something like that.
REHMAnd an email from Sam. I'm curious to know why it's difficult to predict earthquakes given the fact that sensors should detect the deformation of the rocks. How well developed are earthquake prediction models, Chris?
GOLDFINGERWell, earthquake -- we call that the P-word in earthquake science. We -- there is no earthquake prediction whatsoever. And we can forecast earthquakes sort of from past performance, and we can measure strain building up for the next earthquake with very, very precise GPS, and we can see, say, at Newport, Oregon, we can see is moving 10 millimeters a year to the northeast, and it's locked to the Pacific plate.
GOLDFINGERSo we can see the evidence for this, but so far, we have no mechanism, no tools, no methods to really forecast or really predict an earthquake.
REHMAll right, to Burt, Virginia, hi there Bill, you're on the air. Go right ahead.
BILLI'm wondering relative to the earthquake fault that you're talking about, what is the relative strength of that to what's called the New Madrid Fault in St. Louis, which the last time it snapped, I understood church bells rang in Boston.
SCANLONThat's right, the church bells rang in Boston. I'll let Chris speak to the science. I can tell you that, as Kathryn's mentioned, you know, there's risk everywhere. The New Madrid Earthquake Fault stretches through eight or nine states. There's organizations, the Central United States Earthquake Consortium, much like the CREW in the Northwest, that is working together to try and be better prepared. There are actually buildings, believe it or not, in Memphis, Tennessee, that are seismically retrofitted. You would never think that. There are some that are on rollers because they knew of the risk, and big corporations built their buildings the right way.
SCANLONSo -- but again, it's a matter of resources and being prepared wherever you live.
GOLDFINGERYeah, that's a fascinating question. So the New Madrid Seismic Zone is -- it went off in 1811, 1812, and some really big earthquakes that did in fact ring church bells in Boston. And the reason for that is because the rocks are really hard on the East Coast. It's the interior of North America. And so it does sort of ring like a bell in itself. Those earthquakes uplifted a part that reversed the Mississippi River briefly and created a waterfall there. It's an incredible story.
GOLDFINGERAnd yet when the geophysicists go back there today and try to measure motion between the two blocks of the fault, it's undetectable. And so we have this enigma where they can't measure motion between the blocks, and yet the paleo-seismologists say that these happened -- these are fairly big earthquakes, in the upper seven range probably, that happened maybe as often as every 500 years, and yet there's no detectable plate motion. So it's a fascinating problem.
GOLDFINGERAnd in fact, yeah, there are buildings that are built for those sized earthquakes, and that's what's recommended for that area.
REHMSo Chris, how do you arrive at the notion that this could happen in the Pacific Northwest within the next 50 years?
GOLDFINGERWell, that basically comes from the statistics of the past events. So we have a 10,000-year-long, roughly, record. We have about 40 to 43 earthquakes that we think have happened in that time. And so Cascadia, just because it's such an enigma, has attracted so much attention, at least from the earth science community, if not everyone else, we actually have enough failures that we can calculate the probabilities from data rather than from a model.
GOLDFINGERAnd so that one in three chance that Kathryn mentioned, that comes from some work offshore that I worked on, where in the southern part of Cascadia, we've had 40 to 43 events in the last 10,000 years, and that turns out to be one every 240 years, and if you do the stats on that, it's 37 percent probability, plus or minus a big number like 10 percent.
GOLDFINGERSo we're fortunate in the sense that we can actually calculate that from real numbers, as opposed to, say, Japan and the disaster that they had. They didn't have that record, and so they underestimated the size of the earthquake, essentially for lack of data. So if there's one bit of good news, it's we have lots of data, and we know -- we know what the hazard really is in Cascadia.
REHMSo may I ask, Chris, how old you are?
REHMAnd how long you intend to stay there?
GOLDFINGERI'm as old as dirt. I'm starting to feel like geology.
REHMAnd Kathryn, I mean, the idea that there's a one in three chance that this could happen in the next 50 years, are you going to continue to go out there?
SCHULZI think I probably will. You know, the thing I think about the region is that I'm scared for it, but I'm not scared of it. I do try to take a lot of precautions on my own behalf, and as I said, urge them on people that I love. Look, could I be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Could there be a flying brick? Could I be on a bridge, and that's how I meet my end?
SCHULZAbsolutely. On the other hand, you know, we all make judgment calls about risk in our lives all the time, and I'm much less concerned about me personally than I am about the fate of the region.
REHMHere is a practical email from Chris, who says, I own a house in Portland, which I plan to sell soon. How will this recent media coverage affect housing prices and earthquake insurance rates in the Pacific Northwest? Kathryn?
SCHULZI've been joking that this piece was like my one-woman effort to discourage population growth in the region. That said, you know, possibly I should wish that it were going to affect things like property value. I honestly don't think it will. The region, especially Portland is -- and Vancouver, boy, they're seeing a serious housing boom.
SCHULZReal estate prices are high. I don't -- yeah, there's a lot of appealing things about the region. I heard some kvetching when the piece came out that it was going to affect property values. I would be shocked, honestly, if that happened. What I would love to see happen is the earthquake insurance industry getting serious in a way that's probably a potential, real mover and shaker in terms of making things safer. If you can't insure your house if it's not bolted to its foundation, people are going to start doing it.
REHMIs there earthquake insurance?
SCANLONThere is. It's -- different states, like California has had to set up their own California Earthquake Authority that sells it. There's not much of it in the private sector, but you can get it. And actually the article, if more people are scared, it actually would have insurance rates go down because the problem is it's not much of a risk pool. Not many people buy it. The penetration rates are like 15 percent, and as Kathryn just said, there aren't the incentives like in other parts of the country or other hazards that we have.
SCANLONIf you get a federally backed mortgage for your home, and you're in a flood zone, you have to buy flood insurance to get that mortgage. That isn't necessarily required for earthquake in parts of the country. So, you know...
REHMShould it be?
SCANLONWell, I'm not one for government mandates, but yes, when you deal with the aftermath of disasters and the economic effects that it has, you want to hopefully find carrots, not sticks, to incentivize people to be more prepared both financially and for the preparedness of their family and their business.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Maybe they figure if an earthquake comes, what's the use.
SCANLONWell, and that's the thing. You can see there's different levels of earthquakes.
SCANLONCertainly if you assume all the worst scenarios of this possibility, and you live exactly right on the coast, as is mentioned in the article, yes, you're going to have some serious issues. But what we've seen the last few years, Diane, regardless of what you think about the politics side of the issue, we've had de rechos in D.C. Where I grew up, in Massachusetts, had tornadoes for the first time in 60 years. There's severe and different events happening all around the country.
SCANLONSo I don't think people should change their vacation plans, and I don't think that they should worry about their real estate prices, but what they should do, as the gentleman earlier mentioned, if you're going to a particular place, your child's going off to school, be prepared and take the simple financial steps. Not only is there bolting it to the foundation, there's what's called non-seismic -- or non-structural seismic retrofitting that Kathryn mentions in her follow-up article, which, you know, she sort of says the last thing you want to do is get hit in the head with a bottle of wine.
SCANLONBut you remove all glass from a certain level, right, and that's the kind of programs we did in the past.
REHMSo are you, through your company, DCMC Partners, helping Portland think about these issues?
SCANLONWell, and also the private sector. I mean, you'd be frankly shocked, alarmed, amazed that even some of the biggest brand name companies that you've -- that you hear of every day don't have strong business continuity plans to make sure that they're prepared to deal with an event. You talked about the infrastructure and the bridges. Whether it's the New Madrid Fault, that we talked about in the Midwest, you're going to have pipelines and railroads shut down, which is going to remove oil, gas, foodstuffs from traversing the country.
SCANLONYou have the same issue in the Pacific Northwest, that there's not enough shelter, there's not enough resources to respond. FEMA has plans for this, as does the whole federal government that works with FEMA, to respond to this, and...
REHMBut we saw just how effectively FEMA worked in Hurricane Sandy and in Hurricane Katrina.
SCANLONWell, I think Administrator Fugate is a long way away from where FEMA was when Katrina hit, and I think he's got a strong partnership with not only the governors but the state and local officials, and he's done a lot for preparedness since he's been in there. He's now the second-longest FEMA serving director of all time, six, seven years, and he's very well thought of from the state of Florida. And they did response.
SCANLONMost of the issues that you hear about from Sandy are long-term recovery. They weren't response issues, right? And when you talk about sheltering needs and food needs and the other loss of life that would happen in this event, you're talking about response, and I think they've got an A-plus record in that since Craig came in.
REHMSo let me just understand what a major earthquake would look in the last few seconds we have left. You know, we've seen earthquakes in "Superman" movies where the earth simply opens. Is that what we're talking about here, Chris?
GOLDFINGERNo, no, not at all, and if there's a second bit of good news, it's that when you actually ride through one of these things, and I was actually in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, they're surprising gentle. And so the shaking is relatively gentle. It just goes on for a long time. The problem in the Northwest, though, is that even gentle shaking for five minutes will take down a lot of brick buildings. So it's seemingly but deceptively gentle.
REHMChris Goldfinger of Oregon State University, Kathryn Schulz, writer for The New Yorker magazine. Her pieces are at our website, drshow.org. And Barry Scanlon, former FEMA advisor. Thank you all. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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