Tornado a portent of what could happen here

The News TribuneMay 22, 2013 

Viewing the swath of total destruction left by Monday’s tornado in Moore, Okla., it’s hard to believe anyone could have survived. But as of this writing, the death toll was a surprisingly low 24 – that is expected to rise – even though the twister was a mile-wide, top-of-the-scale EF5 with winds of more than 200 mph.

That’s likely testament to one important factor: Storm trackers gave residents about 16 minutes warning that a tornado was imminent. They had time to take refuge, either in underground shelters or reinforced interior spaces that are common in Tornado Alley. Those who were killed — including, sadly, several schoolchildren — tended to be in structures that lacked storm shelters.

Unless seismology makes big advances, the Northwest won’t get any such warning when its big natural disaster strikes. And it’s “when,” not “if.” When the expected megaquake hits the coast’s Cascadia Subduction Zone, things will get very bad, very quickly.

That quake could be a magnitude 9.0, spawn deadly coastal tsunamis, and cause widespread death and damage. But the region is also prone to lower-magnitude quakes along its shallow fault lines. It makes a lot of sense to take as many protective measures as possible to prepare for them — like shoring up the older brick buildings that are the most vulnerable to collapse. Residents also should have emergency plans and supplies on hand for surviving several days without shelter, utilities and fresh water.

State and federal geologists recently came out with new projections for how regions in Washington would be affected by a major quake along one of the state’s many shallow faults. A magnitude 7.1 quake along the Tacoma Fault, for instance, would result in an estimated 176 fires, more than 21,000 displaced people, more than 6,000 injured and at least $1.7 billion in property damage.

A magnitude 7.4 quake on the Seattle Fault could kill more than 1,000 in the Puget Sound region, injure more than 17,000 and cause at least $31 billion in damage. A month later, more than 137,000 households would still be without water.

As the people in Moore dig out and start healing, our thoughts are with them. We here in the Northwest rarely experience the primal terror of a tornado, much less one of the magnitude that struck on Monday. But that kind of destructive power could be unleashed here at any moment, with no sirens warning us to take cover.

The residents of Moore knew to take safety precautions because they had experienced a killer tornado in 1999, resulting in more than four dozen deaths. We here in the Northwest have had no such recent tragedies of that magnitude to spur us to action.

Emergency management officials can only do so much to plan for a big quake. The rest is up to each of us to prepare as best we can to survive and ride out the aftermath.

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