Unshaken complacency: Unprepared for quake

Experts say the region is not remotely ready for the kind of big earthquake they now know is likely

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter


photoFiles/Associated Press Then-Gov. Gary Locke inspects a fissure in Deschutes Parkway in Olympia after the magnitude 6.8 Nisqually quake in 2001. Worse damage is likely the next time the Cascadia fault ruptures off the Pacific coast -- the last Cascadia earthquake was a magnitude 9.0, more than 100 times as powerful as the Nisqually quake.


photoLiquefaction susceptibility in Clark County; click to enlarge.
photoPotential for earthquake damage across Clark County; click to enlarge.
photoThe Seattle Times files A man walks by a damaged Starbucks in Seattle after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. The magnitude 6.8 earthquake could be small compared with a potential quake in the Cascadia fault zone. The zone created a magnitude 9.0 earthquake when it last ruptured in 1700.


photoSeattle Post-Intelligencer files Cars were smashed by falling bricks in Seattle during the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. The magnitude 6.8 quake temporarily shut down Seattle-Tacoma International A irport, knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people, cracked the dome atop the state Capitol in Olympia and briefly trapped about 30 people atop a swaying Space Needle. When the Cascadia fault slips, it has the potential to cause far more damage, and a magnitude 9.0 or higher earthquake -- more than 100 times as powerful as a 6.8.


photoKyodo News files A woman walks along a railroad track, passing tsunami-wrecked train cars in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, after the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami devastated that region in 2011. The Pacific Northwest could see similar damage if the Cascadia fault ruptures.
photoFILES/Associated Paul Riek checks to see if his car starts after debris fell on it from the top half of a nearby building during the 2001 Nisqually earthquake in Seattle. The 6.8 earthquake caused extensive damage, but earthquakes of that size are not uncommon in the Pacific Northwest.


photoRelu Burlacu, station manager for University of Utah Seismograph Center, points on Aug. 7, 2007, to an early morning seismic event recorded Aug. 6, measuring 3.9, which could have been an earthquake or the mine collapse itself that recently happened in Huntington, Utah. Scientists believe the seismic waves in the area of the Crandall Canyon mine were "the signature of the collapse and that the collapse was not caused by an earthquake," said James W. Dewey, a seismologist at the National Earthquake Information Center. (AP Photo/The Salt Lake Tribune, Francisco Kjolseth) **DESERET NEWS OUT**


Earthquakes in Washington and Oregon:

• Feb. 28, 2001: Magnitude 6.8 Nisqually earthquake, centered in the Puget Sound region.

• July 2, 1999: Magnitude 5.9, centered at Satsop.

• May 2, 1996: Magnitude 5.4, centered near Duvall.

• Jan. 28, 1995: Magnitude 5.0, centered 10 miles southwest of Seattle.

• Dec. 4, 1993: Magnitude 5.1, centered 10 miles northwest of Klamath Falls, Ore.

• Sept. 20, 1993: Magnitudes 5.9 and 6.0, centered 15 miles northwest of Klamath Falls.

• March 25, 1993: Magnitude 5.6, centered in Scotts Mills southeast of Portland.

• July 12, 1991: Magnitude 6.6, 70 miles off the Oregon Coast.

• March 13, 1985: Magnitude 6.1, off Oregon Coast, 140 miles west of Coos Bay.

• Nov. 22, 1981: Magnitude 5.7, centered off Oregon Coast.

• Nov. 3, 1981: Magnitude 6.2, centered off Oregon Coast.

• Feb. 13, 1981: Magnitude 5.5, near Mount St. Helens.

• Nov. 8, 1980: Magnitude 7.0, off the Oregon Coast.

• April 29, 1965: Magnitude 6.5, centered in Renton.

• Nov. 5, 1962: Magnitude 5.2, centered in Vancouver.

• Nov. 16, 1957: Earthquake at 10 p.m. in Vancouver and Portland. No damage or injuries.

• Dec. 16, 1953: Magnitude 5.6, shakes Portland area and Vancouver, 8:35 p.m. No damage.

• April 13, 1949: Magnitude 7.1, centered in Olympia. Clark County damage negligible.

• Feb. 14, 1946: "Sharp" earthquake at 7:20 p.m. No damage.

• Dec. 29, 1941: Magnitude 5.6, shakes Portland area.

• Nov. 12, 1939: Earthquake centered in Grays Harbor at 11:47 p.m., no damage in Clark County.

• July 16, 1936: Magnitude 5.8, centered in the Milton-Freewater area.

• Jan. 14, 1932: Earthquake shook Vancouver, Clark County at 8:20 a.m. No damage.

• May 13, 1916: Estimated magnitude 5.7, centered in Richland.

• Oct. 5, 1912: "Slight" earthquake reported in central Clark County. No damage.

• March 7, 1893: Estimated magnitude 5.7, centered in Umatilla, Ore.

• Feb. 4, 1892: Estimated magnitude 5.6, shakes the Portland area.

• Sept. 17, 1890: Dishes rattle, fall from shelves in Clark County, no serious damage.

• Oct. 12, 1877: Estimated magnitude 6.7, shakes the Portland area, felt in Clark County, no casualties.

• Dec. 14, 1872: Estimated magnitude between 6.8 and 7.4, shakes Washington, Oregon, Idaho.

• Jan. 26, 1700: Magnitude of about 9, centered off the Northwest coast.

• 1310: Evidence of magnitude 8 or higher in the geologic record.n 810: Evidence of magnitude 8 or higher in the geologic record.

• 400: Evidence of magnitude 8 or higher in the geologic record.

• 170 BC: Evidence of magnitude 8 or higher in the geologic record.

• 600 BC: Evidence of magnitude 8 or higher in the geologic record.

Largest earthquakes since 1900

• May 22, 1960: Magnitude 9.5, Chile. About 1,655 killed by quake, and about 230 killed by tsunami across the Pacific.

• March 27, 1964: Magnitude 9.2, Prince William Sound, Alaska. About 15 killed by quake, 113 by tsunami.

• Dec. 26, 2004: Magnitude 9.1, Northern Sumatra. About 227,898 people killed, missing or presumed dead from quake and tsunami.

• March 11, 2011: Magnitude 9.0, Japan. At least 15,703 people killed, 4,647 missing from quake and tsunami.

• Nov. 4, 1952: Magnitude 9.0, Kamchatka, Russia. No reported deaths, but tsunami damage reported across the Pacific.

Deadliest earthquakes in world history

• Jan. 23, 1556: Magnitude 8, China, more than 830,000 deaths.

• Jan. 12, 2010: Magnitude 7, Haiti, 316,000 deaths.

• June 27, 1976: Magnitude 7.5, China, 242,769 deaths officially reported, could be as high as 655,000.

• Aug. 9, 1138: Magnitude unknown, Syria, 230,000 deaths.

• Dec. 26, 2004: Magnitude 9.1, Northern Sumatra, 227,898 deaths.

SOURCE: U.S. Geological Survey

Earthquake magnitudes

Average number of earthquakes globally each year, by magnitude:

• Mag. 8 and up: 1

• Mag. 7 to 7.9: 15

• Mag. 6 to 6.9: 134

• Mag. 5 to 5.9: 1,319

• Mag. 4 to 4.9: 13,000 (estimated)

• Mag. 3 to 3.9: 130,000 (estimated)

• Mag. 2 to 2.9: 1,300,000 (estimated)

SOURCE: U.S. Geological Survey

People often remember the calm, the quiet, how normal everything seemed before a disaster.

In Clark County, they might remember grabbing a cup of coffee at Starbucks by Esther Short Park, hanging out on the patio at Beaches by the waterfront, taking a bike ride along the Salmon Creek Trail -- before the shaking started.

During the long seconds of a magnitude 9.0 Cascadia earthquake, the soft loose soils along the Columbia River could quickly convert to the consistency of liquid or quicksand.

Beaches, Who Song & Larry's, Joe's Crab Shack and other establishments could jiggle, shift and sink lopsided into the ground by a few inches or a few feet.

Buried water mains and sewer lines could crack, separate, or float to the surface, spilling their contents across roads, landscapes and waterways. Downtown, older brick-and-mortar buildings could shift and shake, shedding bricks and rooftops in piles of debris.

In the flash of a few minutes, pretty much all of Clark County would be likely to find itself without power, without reliable roads and without safe water. And it could stay that way for months.

On a normal late fall day in Vancouver, such devastation might seem unreal. But it's happened before -- across the globe, and also right here.

What is a Cascadia quake?

Just off the Pacific coast -- about 50 miles out to sea, and stretching from Northern California to British Columbia -- a 700-mile fault marks where the Juan de Fuca geologic plate is sliding under the North America plate. The process, which started about 20 million years ago, is pushing North America over Juan de Fuca at a rate of about 1.5 inches a year.

Rock from the dipping, or subducting, plate melts as it moves under the continent, feeding the volcanic arc that includes Mount St. Helens, Mount Hood and Mount Rainier.

Pressure also builds up along the fault. The plates don't move smoothly but tend to stick and lock against one another, resisting movement until the fault suddenly slips, creating deep and potentially very deadly earthquakes.

There's no way to predict exactly when the fault will move again. The last time it happened was just over 300 years ago -- when the entire 700-mile stretch slipped in the span of about five minutes, creating a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and a massive tsunami recorded in Japanese history as occurring Jan. 26, 1700.

Geologists have uncovered evidence of similarly sized quakes in the region in 1310 AD, 810 AD, 400 AD, 170 BC and 600 BC. There may have been more, but it can be hard to find evidence of earthquakes in the rock record.

Because of that, scientists continue to debate how often the fault ruptures. Some think it happens about every 500 years; others think it's more like every 250 years.

"Nothing is for sure," said Tim Walsh, chief hazard geologist at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. "But we've gone past that 250-year time scale already."

The risks

The Clark County Hazard Identification Vulnerability Analysis, put out by Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, called the threat of a dangerous earthquake "the hazard of greatest risk to Clark County," more threatening than a flood, wildfire or volcanic eruption.

The analysis ranks the 25-year probability, vulnerability and risk rating for a strong quake -- if not a full 9.0 Cascadia quake -- as high.

There are three categories of earthquakes, all of which occur here.

• Shallow or crustal quakes happen along faults near the surface, up to about 10 miles deep. Such faults include the Mount St. Helens Seismic Zone, the Lacamas Creek Fault and the Portland Hills Fault. Shallow faults can trigger by themselves, or could be triggered by deeper earthquakes created through plate tectonics.

• Interplate quakes happen when one geologic plate affects another, such as parts of Juan de Fuca melting and scraping beneath the North America plate. Those quakes tend to be deeper, perhaps 30 miles below Earth's surface.

• Subduction zone earthquakes happen when plates stick and then suddenly slip against one another at plate boundaries, such as the Cascadia fault.

Every year, the Pacific Northwest Seismograph Network records about 2,000 earthquakes in Washington and Oregon. Most are shallow quakes with magnitudes of less than 3.0.

Larger shallow quakes are far less frequent but can be dangerous. The strongest shallow quake recorded since white settlers came to the region was an estimated magnitude 7.4 back in 1872. It was felt in Oregon, Idaho and Washington. More recently, the "Spring Break Quake" on March 25, 1993 -- a shallow magnitude 5.6 centered southeast of Portland -- caused $28 million in damage.

Interplate quakes can cause even more damage. On Feb. 28, 2001, the magnitude 6.8 Nisqually earthquake centered 32 miles beneath the Puget Sound region killed one and injured 700, creating between $1 billion and $4 billion in damage.

Scientists think both of those types of earthquakes happen at a rate of about one per 50 years in the Pacific Northwest.

Then there's a Cascadia quake, which would be a subduction zone earthquake. It's hard to tell how much damage a 9.0 quake like that would cause, but a report by the Department of Natural Resources suggests the damage could go well into billions of dollars and injure or possibly kill thousands of people.

"Big picture for a Cascadia (earthquake) … we're definitely looking at years before we're made whole again," said John Wheeler, emergency management coordinator at CRESA. "If you look at (Hurricanes) Katrina and Sandy, at the Japanese earthquake -- the damage from those is very similar to what we could experience in the Pacific Northwest."

A learning curve

Scientific theories can be slow to move from the lab to the general public, because the scientific community tries to verify as much data as possible before releasing the information.

Scientists didn't generally agree on plate tectonics -- the theory that Earth's surface is made up of a bunch of crustal plates that move and interact with each other -- until the 1960s.

They didn't understand the potential of the Cascadia fault until the 1980s, and that information didn't reach the general public until about 1993, said Yumei Wang, a geotechnical engineer with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries in Portland.

"It's incredible because there's a huge whopping fault that stretches from North California to Canada, and it wasn't until the late '80s that scientists reached a consensus on the hazard," Wang said. "It wasn't until about 2000 that scientists first reached a consensus that the (potential) earthquake could be a magnitude 8 or 9."

And while that information was under debate, buildings, pipelines and other structures continued to go up, based on construction standards that said the region was relatively geologically stable.

"Our understanding of things has improved," Wang said. "But a lot of our systems that were built before we knew there was a big fault here can be vulnerable."

As information about the Cascadia fault has improved, so have building codes. And many structures -- schools, prisons, churches, bridges -- have been retrofitted to protect human life in the event of a strong earthquake.

But as scientists learn more about how structures withstand earthquakes around the globe, those codes continue to evolve -- and the expense of meeting them continues to grow.

"We keep upping the ante, we keep making buildings stronger and stronger, and then another earthquake comes along, things are destroyed and we have to change everything again," said Eric Lanciault, a Clark County architect.

Cascadia, because the recurrence rates are highly debated and a similar quake hasn't happened since the area was developed, is another story, he added.

"Nobody's code anticipates Cascadia," Lanciault said.

In Clark County

The Department of Natural Resources has a series of hazard maps for counties across the state that it updates periodically. The most recent maps for Clark County show large swaths -- especially along the Columbia River and Vancouver Lake -- that are particularly susceptible to strong shaking.

Loose soils, like those along rivers and lakes, can be especially vulnerable to a process called liquefaction. In that process, the shaking mixes soil and sand grains with water, creating a land surface that temporarily acts like quicksand.

"River sediments, which a lot of Vancouver is founded on, are susceptible to liquefaction," Wang said. "If you have a building built on soil that temporarily gives way, it can sink by inches up to a few feet."

Buildings can tilt, and buried septic and other tanks can shake their way up to the ground surface. So can water and sewer lines.

"They can pop up because of their buoyancy," she said.

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, caused a lot of liquefaction damage, which Wang saw firsthand when she recently went to the region.

"Over 20,000 manholes were damaged; they popped up in the liquefied soil," she said. "The water system, for fighting fires, they couldn't use that because it had popped out of the ground."

In a Cascadia quake, restaurants, businesses and condominiums -- as well as water, sewer and power lines -- near the Columbia River could end up shifting, rising or sinking in the liquefied soils.

"You don't have to be by the river to feel the effects of that," Wang said. "Soils can liquefy 1,000 or even 2,000 feet from the river."

Another process, called lateral spreading, could also create hazardous conditions. That happens when liquefied soils move down a slope, spreading the ground surface.

During the 2011 quake in Tokyo, the ground spread by 5 feet in spots and moved a river, she said.

"If you have a soft soil, you can amplify the ground shaking (and cause liquefaction or lateral spreading)," Wang said. "And Vancouver doesn't have a lot of hard rock."

Clark County also has its share of unstable slopes, which could be susceptible to landslides. Risk assessment maps show swaths of land around Hazel Dell, central Vancouver and La Center with soft soils that could be vulnerable to landslides or other hazards from amplified shaking.

"A lot of Clark County is on gravel," which isn't the most stable surface, said CRESA's Wheeler. "And of course there's more (relatively stable) bedrock in the least populated parts of the county (like Yacolt)."

Throughout the county, and in downtown Vancouver, older buildings -- especially those made of unreinforced masonry -- could easily shed bricks, glass and roofing, or collapse outright during the shaking.

Also vulnerable are buildings that aren't secured to their cement foundations.

"It's actually a common thing," Wheeler said. "If your house isn't secured, if it's not fastened to its foundation, it could slide off or be knocked off."

Parts of the ground could rise up unevenly, cracking and shifting roadways. Bridges, even if they didn't collapse, could take weeks to assess and likely longer to repair, as would train tracks and other transportation networks.

According to the Hazard Identification Vulnerability Analysis:

"It is difficult to identify a part of the community that is not vulnerable to an earthquake. People, buildings, emergency services, hospitals, transportation lifelines, and water and wastewater utilities are susceptible to the effects of an earthquake. In addition, electric and natural gas utilities and dams have a potential to be damaged."

How to prepare

Is it possible to prepare for something like the Cascadia earthquake? To some degree, yes.

Perhaps the simplest thing you can do is just look around your home and see which large objects, like televisions or bookshelves, might come loose and cause injury during the shaking, Wheeler said.

"In earthquakes, the most common injuries are nonstructural, where items fall on you," Wheeler said. "It's a great idea to go through one's house and do a hazard assessment."

During an earthquake, it's important to follow the "drop, cover and hold on" slogan. That is, drop to the ground when the shaking starts so you don't lose your footing, get under something so debris doesn't fall on top of you, and hold on to your protection in case it moves or shifts.

The myth that door frames are safe is just that, unless you live in a wood-frame house that was built in the early 1900s when those structures weren't just punched out of drywall.

Structures most likely to survive Cascadia and provide shelter in the aftermath are generally the county's newest buildings.

"I can't tell you what's most likely to collapse, but I'll tell you which buildings to run to," Lanciault said. "There are some really, really good buildings in Clark County and Vancouver, even though older buildings probably won't do so well."

Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, 17010 N.E. Ninth St., which Lanciault designed, could be one of the safest buildings in town, he said.

"I designed it, but I'm not being biased," he said. "That is a very safe building. I'd tell my family to head there in an earthquake."

Newer construction at the Washington School for the Deaf, 611 Grand Blvd.; City Hall, 415 W. Sixth St.; the county's two hospitals; and many newly built county school buildings should hold up fairly well also, he said.

"You just have to scan for whatever's been recently built," he said. "Especially government buildings."

Emergency responders will have to assess damage throughout the county before they prioritize their efforts. If your home is habitable after a quake, it's likely that you'll be asked to return there to lessen the load on shelters.

"You have to realize that 911 might not be there, and fire agencies will have to do what we call 'windshield surveys' before responding to individual incidents," Wheeler said. "They're going to have to prioritize what they do, and a lot of people may need to wait before they get help."

In the aftermath of a Cascadia quake, it's likely that power could be out for weeks, perhaps months. Bridges could be similarly out of service, roads and train tracks damaged. It's possible Clark County would be completely cut off from neighboring Portland for a time, Wheeler said.

"It's not unreasonable to expect that we could be isolated in Clark County as a whole community," he said.

It's a good idea to prepare an emergency kit with several days' worth of food, a gallon of water per day per person, flashlights, blankets, a first-aid kit and even a generator, Wheeler said.

"What people really need to be thinking about is how to be as self-sufficient as possible," Wheeler said. "It's very fair to point at what's happened with Hurricane Sandy. You need to have a plan and be ready to be an island unto yourself."

Some parts of New York and New Jersey that were hit by Superstorm Sandy in late October are still without power. That's a lesson if you think the standard suggestion of a three-day supply of food and water is more than enough, Wheeler said.

"I say at least three days," Wheeler said. "If you look at Sandy, several days past landfall and there were still people who couldn't get basic supplies."

Walsh, at the Department of Natural Resources, has several emergency kits stashed in various spots.

"In my car I have one with thermal blankets, packets of water, a first-aid kit, flashlights and stuff like that," Walsh said. "At home I have enough food and water for several days and a generator."

Water is especially important, even if you have a well, he added.

"One thing that happens in earthquakes is that they change the groundwater system," Walsh said. "They can increase or decrease the flow in a well. In 2001 in the Nisqually quake, several wells in Eastern Washington dried up."

Another bit of advice is to make sure your gas tank is always half-full. It's good for the car, but it also gives you some mobility if all the infrastructure fails, Wheeler said.

"Unfortunately it's usually a minority of people that prepare," Wheeler said. "The lesson with Hurricane Sandy, with Katrina, with Japan, is that it could happen to us. It's not just on TV. It's a reality in the Pacific Northwest."

Sue Vorenberg: 360-735-4457; http://twitter.com/col_SueVo; sue.vorenberg@columbian.com.