NW View: West Coast needs early-warning system for earthquakes, tsunamis

Credit an East Coast magazine with awakening Northwesterners to a dire threat lurking under their feet.

For years, scientists, journalists and emergency response officers have been trying to alert folks in this corner of the country to the likelihood of a massive earthquake followed by a devastating tsunami. The public response has been something like, “Earthquakes in Western Washington? What else is new?”

The New Yorker finally managed to drive the message home last week with an article titled “The Really Big One.”

The article has gone viral. Ordinary Washingtonians are now fretting about what might happen with a magnitude-9.0 quake on the Cascadia subduction zone, a highly stressed tectonic joint that runs along the Northwest Coast from Northern California to Vancouver Island. Scientists have traced the last such disaster – recorded by the Japanese and remembered by Northwest Indians – to the year 1700. Major Cascadia subduction earthquakes have occurred, on average, once every 243 years. It’s been 315 years since the last one.

A 9.0 earthquake could liquefy much of the soil beneath Seattle and Portland, destroy older high rises and masonry buildings, buckle highways and collapse bridges, and sever gas and electrical lines. People who live in the disaster zone could be cut off from supplies for a week or more. The worst havoc would be wrought by the inevitable tsunami, which would likely kill thousands of people on low-lying stretches of the Washington and Oregon coasts.

Fear does no good. The smart response is to take precautions. Any number of organizations and websites offer suggestions for riding out a disaster like this. Everyone should be aware of cabinets and other heavy objects that might start “walking” and falling when the ground rocks. Everyone should know how to “drop, cover and hold on” in a quake. People should have at least a week’s supply of emergency essentials on hand: water, medication, food, lights and batteries, etc.

Government has a crucial role in preparing for a high-magnitude earthquake. One of the West Coast’s urgent needs is for a state-of-the-art earthquake early-warning system.

Japan has one: After detecting the subtle first tremors of a quake, it instantly lights up a network that warns surgeons to pause operations, puts machinery in safe mode, opens firehouse and elevator doors, and otherwise braces the country for the Earth’s convulsions. This works because the first waves of the earthquake arrive seconds ahead of the actual shaking – seconds that can make all the difference. The United States lags Japan, Taiwan and even Mexico in earthquake warning technology. At least 300 new seismic sensor stations must be installed in the Northwest to serve as the foundation of an advanced early-warning system. California won federal funding in Congress last year for the first stage of a new system. Given the Northwest’s potential for a far greater quake than California has ever seen, Oregon and Washington need in on the congressional deal, too.


To sign up for emergency alerts in Whatcom County and emergency preparedness tips, go online to whatcomready.org.


This column reflects the views of the editorial board of the News Tribune newspaper in Tacoma.