by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Staff Writer
On January 12, the island nation of Haiti, an already underdeveloped country ravaged by corrupt governing and a depleted economy, was brought to the brink of catastrophic ruin by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Within the hour, images of crumbled buildings, streets lined with dead bodies, and scenes of chaos were broadcast worldwide. Even now, two weeks and at least 52 aftershocks later, the death toll continues to rise. Currently, there are nearly 200,000 suspected fatalities.
Haiti isn't unique in the destruction that follows an earthquake. Since 2001, many nations have lost both lives and infrastructure to the earth. From a 7.7 magnitude (M) 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, India (20,085 fatalities) to a 7.6 M 2005 Kashmir, Pakistan earthquake, one truth emerges: When the earth quakes badly, buildings will fall, and people will die.
Upon processing the images of such devastation, pain and suffering, one might think, "What can I do to help?" And at some point, you might also wonder, "What if this happened to us?"
Seattle Gay News has decided to take away some of the guesswork for you. In doing research for this article, I spoke with city officials, emergency preparedness professionals, and earthquake experts to uncover the answers for what we, as individuals and as a city, could do to better our chances at survival if the "Big One" hits Seattle.
WHY THE EARTH MOVES
Seattle is a beautiful place to live, but it is not hazard-free. The 2001 Nisqually earthquake (6.8 M) rocked Seattle and caused millions of dollars in damage. According to the Seattle Office of Emergency Management, the Nisqually quake "pales in comparison to a Cascadia Megathrust earthquake, which could rival the one that unleashed the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004." Even more destructive, says the office of emergency management, would be a Seattle Fault earthquake, which would be centered right in the middle of the city. Let's face it, Seattle is earthquake country.
"Washington State is interesting in that there are a tremendous amount of fault lines beneath its surface," Tracy Connelly, an emergency management training specialist for Seattle, told SGN. "We have the capability to have a variety of earthquakes."
The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN), an organization that operates seismograph stations and locates earthquakes in Washington and Oregon, said the Pacific Northwest has earthquakes because "we are located at a convergent continental boundary, where two tectonic plates are colliding." This boundary is called the Cascadia Subduction Zone. It lies offshore and runs from British Columbia to northern California. The two plates are converging at a rate of 1-2 inches per year, and the northeast-moving Juan de Fuca Plate is pushing into North America, causing stress to accumulate. The earthquakes occur because of an abrupt release of the accumulated stress.
Large quakes have occurred here in the past, and will happen again. Besides the 2001 Nisqually quake, other major incidents include a 6.5 M 1965 South Puget Sound quake that killed six people and cost nearly $100 million in damages; a 7.1 M 1949 South Puget Sound quake that killed eight people and cost a whopping $292 million worth of damages; a 6.3 M 1946 mid-Puget Sound quake that damaged Seattle, mainly in the Duwamish Valley; and the worst on record, a 9.0 M 1700 Washington Coast massive megathrust quake that dropped the Washington coast by several feet.
According to the Seattle Office of Emergency Management, a fault zone runs through the middle of the city.
"The Seattle Fault line is just one mile beneath the surface," Connelly told SGN. "A simple 5.0 M quake could have devastating effects. The types of earthquakes that could potentially shake Seattle range from small to a 9.0 M."
Connolly says that if an earthquake happened right below the city's surface, or one of the three major plates shifted, "we have the potential for something very, very large."
"What will that look like?" she asks. "Well, we know that earthquakes disrupt transportation, communications, and the like, but we also face gas leaks and the potential for fires. In areas near the lakes, if the ground slips in a certain way, we have the potential for tsunami or a seiche." A seiche is a standing wave which can occur when a body of water sloshes from side to side - picture a bowl of water tipping acutely and suddenly settling back to normal. Seiches have the potential to cause major flooding.
Luckily, dramatic earthquakes are not as common as the "Nisqually" type, which occur deep under Puget Sound every 30 to 50 years. According to PNSN, the origins of these quakes are so deep, the seismic waves are significantly weakened by the time they reach the surface.
FOR DAMAGING EARTHQUAKES
PNSN says there are many faults in the Pacific Northwest that could produce damaging earthquakes, including "hard-to-identify faults that exist entirely underground and have not been identified at the earth's surface." At the same time, some mapped faults have been located that have not generated earthquakes in recent geological time.
There are three different sources for damaging earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest.
The first of these is the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a 62-mile thrust fault which is the convergent boundary between the Juan de Fuca and North American plates and is the most extensive fault in the Pacific Northwest area. It surfaces about 50 miles offshore along the coasts of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and Northern California.
The second source for damaging earthquakes is the Benioff Zone. This zone is the continuation of the extensive faulting that results as the subducting plate is forced into the upper mantle. The Benioff Zone can probably produce magnitudes as large as 7.5. Benioff Zone earthquakes are deeper than 18 miles.
The third source consists of shallow crustal earthquake activity, one mile beneath the surface, within the North American continental plate where faulting is extensive. Past earthquakes have revealed many shallow fault structures, including the Western Rainier Seismic Zone and the Mt. St. Helens Seismic Zone. The best-known crustal fault is the Seattle Fault, which runs east-west through Seattle from Issaquah to Bremerton.
The Seattle Office of Emergency Management says Pacific Northwest quakes fall into three categories: shallow, with depths from 0-18 miles and felt very intensely near the epicenter; deep, with depths between 18-46 miles - the most common earthquakes in the area; and subduction, the largest type of quake, with magnitudes from 8.0 to over 9.0.
The Earthquake Engineering Research Institute conducted a Seattle Fault Scenario that modeled a magnitude 6.7 quake (the worst quake, according to PNSN, Seattle is likely to face) and found that ground motions would be two to five times that of the Nisqually Earthquake. A rupture on the Seattle Fault zone could severely disrupt north-south lifeline systems, including utilities and transportation routes, they found.
"A major Seattle Fault earthquake could cause thousands of deaths and devastate the city's infrastructure," said Seattle Office of Emergency Management officials on the organization's website. "Older brick buildings [unreinforced masonry] and tilt-up construction is the most vulnerable. Areas of the city on soft soils like the Duwamish and Rainier Valleys are the most vulnerable. Seattle's geography and our dependence on bridges make us vulnerable to transportation disruptions."
For the better part of the last decade, we've all seen the scenes from epic Hollywood movies where death and destruction are glamorized. From earthquakes and tornadoes to "perfect storms," the blockbusters sell movie tickets as fast as they are printed. But for many, the visions of buildings falling, people being buried alive, and the loss of food and water are more than mere scenes in a movie. Just ask the people of Haiti or Hurricane Katrina survivors, and they will tell you that there is little, if anything, man can do when Mother Nature shows her wrath. Emergency services and basic needs that one might take for granted suddenly become the difference between life and death.
On any given day, the brave men and women of the Seattle Police Department and Seattle Fire Department face off against dangerous odds to keep the citizens of the Emerald City safe. City officials, regardless of politics, have certain duties they must perform in times of crisis. There are manuals on what to do and how and when to do it, but the question that begs answering is whether or not it can actually be done.
"The fact of the matter is, we know that communications and utilities will be affected," Connelly told SGN. "In order for the city to properly run, planning has to happen at every level, from individuals to whole neighborhoods. In general, the more prepared the entire community is, the easier our recovery would be."
Even though some neighborhoods would be more susceptible to ruin, PNSN cautions that, "There is no Seattle area neighborhood that is immune from possible earthquake damage. The age of structure and the type of geology in the area are two factors that will affect the vulnerability to earthquakes."
According to Connelly, people are resilient after major emergencies. When basic communications fail, she says the best thing to do is turn to the radio. "KIRO 710 AM is the designated radio station. Radio is important; it is where people can hear up-to-date information about evacuation routes and shelter areas - so much important, and possibly life-saving information can be relayed."
Aaron Pickus, spokesman for Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, told SGN, "In the case of an earthquake and any other emergency in our city, the mayor and his team coordinate city efforts through the Emergency Operations Center."
McGinn says he has "complete confidence in the dedication, professionalism and skill of all city employees."
Still, the mayor's office says the deteriorating seawall is a major concern. "If it fails, it is likely the viaduct would fail as well," Pickus told SGN. "It would be a terrible catastrophe and, depending on the specifics of the event and the immediate need of Seattle's citizens, the mayor would respond accordingly."
Connolly and the Seattle Office of Emergency Management say they are unable to pinpoint a number on the Richter Magnitude Scale that would guarantee the aging viaduct and seawall's destruction. "It would depend on where the quake is happening and how deep it is," she said.
If a major quake hit the Seattle area, everyone agrees that roads would be blocked and hospitals would be overcrowded. Emergency response teams may not be able to do everything they normally could, simply because, as Seattle Fire Chief Gregory Dean puts it, "emergency resources may become scarce."
Dean told SGN the Seattle Fire Department has an overall Disaster Management Plan that outlines how the department will continue to provide emergency services during a natural or man-made disaster. Within that plan, he said, is the Earthquake Annex, which specifically addresses the department's ability to maintain operations in terms of personnel, facilities, equipment and communications.
"All Seattle Firefighters are emergency medical technicians, which means they provide basic emergency medical services," he said. "Firefighter paramedics are trained at a higher level and deliver advanced emergency medical care for patients with more serious injuries."
Dean says all firefighters are trained in structural collapse and rescue - critical skills in the aftermath of an earthquake. In addition, Dean said the department has a specially trained and highly experienced Technical Rescue Team whose members have responded to the Oklahoma City Bombing, the 9/11 attacks in New York, and Hurricane Katrina.
"There are caches of emergency equipment accessible to firefighters in strategic locations that do not require traveling over bridges or underpasses that may collapse or be in danger of collapse," Dean told SGN. "Seattle's fireboats have the capability to draft water from Elliot Bay to fight fires or provide a water supply if hydrants are affected by an earthquake."
According to Dean, there are 208 firefighters on duty every day in the city, serving a population of over 600,000 people. In the event of an earthquake or any type of major event, the department has the ability to call in firefighters from home and has mutual aid agreements with bordering cities.
"However, roadways and highways would likely be compromised throughout the region, so additional help may take some time to arrive," he said. "That is why the public plays such an important role in disaster response. Because emergency resources may become scarce, responders rely on the public to be able to care for themselves for the first 72 hours after a disaster. That means having a supply of water, food and first-aid supplies at home."
PREPARING FOR EARTHQUAKES
When the ground shakes, Seattle Office of Emergency Management says, "Drop, cover, and hold." When you feel an earthquake, drop and cover under a desk or sturdy table. Stay away from windows and objects like bookcases that could fall. Hold on to the desk or table. If it moves, move with it. "Do not run," they warn. "Stay where you are."
If you are indoors, stay inside and don't go outside until the shaking stops. If you are in a public place, do not rush for an exit. Instead, move away from display shelves and "drop, cover, and hold." If you are in a stadium or theater, Seattle Office of Emergency Management recommends you get between the rows of seats, protect your head with your arms, and not leave until the shaking stops.
Being outdoors could also pose a threat. Emergency management cautions that you should move to a clear area away from trees, signs, buildings or downed electrical wires and poles. If you are in a downtown area, get into a building, doorway or lobby to protect yourself from falling bricks, glass and other debris. If you are driving, slowly pull over to the side of the road and stop and stay in the vehicle until the shaking stops. Lastly, if you are in a wheelchair, stay in it. Move to a safe cover if possible, lock your wheels, and protect your head with your arms.
"Haiti is a teachable moment," Connelly says. "Seattleites should realize that being prepared is so important and really makes your chances of survival improve."
Connelly says it is important to take the first step. Do something - anything - from the emergency management's list of things to do to prepare for an earthquake and you will already be that much closer to protecting yourself and your loved ones from danger.
"Anchor appliances and tall, heavy furniture that might fall. Put latches on cabinet doors to keep contents from spilling out. Find out how you can improve your home to protect it against earthquake damage," she said. "Establish an 'out-of-area' contact and keep the phone numbers handy. This is the person family members will call if you are separated. Have a place at home where emergency supplies are kept and tell others where it is."
So what happens after an earthquake? Like Seattle Fire Chief Dean said, you and your family may be waiting up to 72 hours for outside help to arrive. Seattle Office of Emergency Management recommends you do the following:
"Check yourself and those around you for injuries. Be prepared for aftershocks. Use the phone only to report a life-threatening emergency. Do not drive unnecessarily. If you smell gas or hear a hissing sound, open a window and leave the building. Shut off the main gas valve outside. Check on neighbors, particularly elderly or disabled persons. Try to contact your out-of-area phone contact and listen to the radio."
If you were evacuated, wait until you are told it is safe before returning home. Be careful entering buildings and stay away from downed power lines.
Important information, earthquake preparedness classes, and general knowledge disaster courses are offered by the city. For more information, visit the Seattle Office of Emergency Management online at www.seattle.gov/emergency.
"The way we feel is that we are here to support the community in being better prepared," Connelly told SGN. "We are a resource to the community & [to help] make all of this information not so overwhelming and scary."
While we may not be able to predict or stop an earthquake, it is clear that we can all do our part in preparing for one. In times of disaster - be they man-made or natural - there is only so much a city government can do. The next time Seattle experiences a major earthquake, will you be prepared?
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