In Our View: Earthquake Warning

California temblor reminds us we need to be prepared, too

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The largest earthquake in 25 years to hit the notoriously shaky San Francisco Bay area struck, as quakes always do, without warning. In this case, the magnitude-6.0 quake must have been even more terrifying, as it happened at 3:20 a.m., in the dark, while almost everyone was sleeping.

Luckily, Sunday’s earthquake caused mostly localized damage to California’s wine country. Bricks tumbled from the old county courthouse in Napa. Water mains and gas lines ruptured, triggering at least six fires, one of which destroyed several mobile homes. At least 120 people were hurt, including a handful of patients with critical injuries.

No, this temblor won’t be remembered as “the big one.” But it serves once again as a reminder that our perch on the Pacific Rim is precarious, prone to the seismic colic of a restless planet. And it also serves as a reminder that our duty is to prepare for the day when the catastrophic earthquake hits our beautiful Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, scientists agree that day is coming.

Just off the Pacific Coast, a 700-mile fault marks where the Juan de Fuca geologic plate is sliding under the North American plate. The pressure builds and releases itself as an earthquake. When the entire fault moves, a catastrophic earthquake results.

Geologists say this has happened at least a half-dozen times. The most recent was Jan. 26, 1700 — before the advent of European settlement in the Pacific Northwest. Some say we’re overdue for another quake.

If it hits soon, are we adequately prepared? Despite attention paid in recent years, there are likely to be some major trouble spots.

Vancouver, for example, is still dealing with the need to reinforce or replace several of its fire stations. A study a few years ago showed several of the city’s 10 fire stations have a better than 1-in-25 chance of collapsing in a 7.0-magnitude quake.

Probably the most publicized weakness in the infrastructure is the Interstate 5 Bridge. The bridge has stood the test of time — one span was built in 1917; the other in 1958 — but studies conducted in conjunction with the canceled Columbia River Crossing project show that its footings rest on soil that would liquefy in a major earthquake. Another fear is the four 700-ton counterweights that hang above each end of the two draw spans like Swords of Damocles.

It would be cost-prohibitive to repair or replace all of these hazards immediately. We continue to make progress, and prioritize, and try new technologies. Last year the Bonneville Power Administration showed off a new power transformer, built with shock-absorbing devices that could greatly increase the chances of the power grid staying intact after a devastating quake.

And a Camas entrepreneur has even gotten into the act, marketing a safety capsule built to withstand natural disasters.

There are, of course, things that residents can do to improve their comfort after an earthquake. Keep at least three days’ worth of food and water on hand, because stores will likely be closed and supply routes will be blocked. (Hint: secure your hot water heater so that it can’t tip during a quake. The 50 gallons or so of water inside are potable.) Look around your house to eliminate hazards, such as heavy picture frames over a bed or chair. Set up a location for your family to reunite. Designate an out-of-state contact person to call to report you’re safe. Keep a pair of shoes under your bed.

The lesson from Sunday’s earthquake is preparedness.