Disaster Preparation

I’m horrified and fascinated by this Kathryn Schulz article, “The Really Big One,” in The New Yorker. It’s about the Cascadia subduction zone in the Pacific Northwest. Geologists agree that an earthquake of epic proportions is brewing along the coast, where the North American tectonic plate meets the Juan de Fuca. The only questions are how epic, and how much time do we have?

The PNW is in no way prepared for an earthquake or the tsunami that will follow because, as Schulz points out, fifty years ago we had no idea the Cascadia subduction zone existed, much less that it was seismically active. The buildings are not up to code; there are no well-planned evacuation routes; even now, builders continue to develop within the tsunami inundation zone. FEMA’s disaster planning scenario predicts that, when the big one comes, thirteen thousand people will die.

Schulz’s article is in some ways a call to arms to improve infrastructure. Update some buildings, move others, create evacuation plans. “The time to save people from a tsunami is before it happens,” she argues, “but the region has not yet taken serious steps toward doing so.”

Can people be scared into doing so? Schulz wants to try. Her descriptions of the likely fallout mix the sweeping destruction of a Michael Bay movie with the creepy desolation of a Cormac McCarthy novel. First, the action:

Those who cannot get out of the inundation zone under their own power will quickly be overtaken by a greater one. A grown man is knocked over by ankle-deep water moving at 6.7 miles an hour. The tsunami will be moving more than twice that fast when it arrives. Its height will vary with the contours of the coast, from twenty feet to more than a hundred feet. It will not look like a Hokusai-style wave, rising up from the surface of the sea and breaking from above. It will look like the whole ocean, elevated, overtaking land. Nor will it be made only of water—not once it reaches the shore. It will be a five-story deluge of pickup trucks and doorframes and cinder blocks and fishing boats and utility poles and everything else that once constituted the coastal towns of the Pacific Northwest.

Then, the darkness: three months of no electricity, a year of no water service, three years of no hospitals.

It’s scary stuff, but fear may not be enough of a motivator to rebuild the Pacific Northwest. As Schulz writes, it’s not “a problem of imagination”:

If you are so inclined, you can watch an earthquake destroy much of the West Coast this summer in Brad Peyton’s “San Andreas,” while, in neighboring theatres, the world threatens to succumb to Armageddon by other means: viruses, robots, resource scarcity, zombies, aliens, plague. As those movies attest, we excel at imagining future scenarios, including awful ones. But such apocalyptic visions are a form of escapism, not a moral summons, and still less a plan of action. Where we stumble is in conjuring up grim futures in a way that helps to avert them.

It’s worth adding, we’ve seen this before, in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina, partnered with failing levees and fumbling federal relief efforts, claimed nearly 2000 lives. We don’t need a movie to imagine what happens; we already know, if we’re willing to remember.

Between Schulz’s article and John Oliver’s recent take on the US’s crumbling infrastructure, maybe disaster preparation will get some more traction in US politics. It’s probably wishful thinking, but I’d love to see presidential candidates start talking about creating a new WPA, one mindful of geology and climate science. I don’t think “the market” is going to solve this one for us; we need coordination, public funds, political will.

I’m developing a Writing and Research course for the fall called “Art and the End of the World,” which will center on Station Eleven. We’ll be talking about all kinds of disaster scenarios, from climate change to pandemic disease to war. I’ll include this earthquake article too because it touches on many of the questions that preoccupy me. Including the really big one: Why, when we can see disaster coming from a mile away, do we close our eyes and plug our ears?

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