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The Earthquake That Would Devastate One-Third Of America Isn’t Where You Think

earthquake --The one place in the United States most at risk for a catastrophic earthquake – the “big one” — may not be Los Angeles or San Francisco, but instead Seattle and the surrounding region.

The Cascadia Fault, as it is called, is just off the Pacific Coast and is capable of generating a quake of 8.7 to 9.2 in magnitude and devastate much of America — and the region is largely unprepared for such a catastrophe, according to seismologists. By comparison, Japan’s largest earthquake in 2011 was 9.0.

The Cascadia Fault was featured in a 2013 Off The Grid News story and has received new attention in recent days following a feature in The New Yorker.

A major eruption along it would, the publication said, be the “worst natural disaster in the history of the continent.” Going by history, the region is due for another quake.

“Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast,” Kenneth Murphy, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the region, told The New Yorker. That area includes the cities of Portland, Tacoma, Eugene, Olympia, Seattle, Vancouver, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia. The Seattle metro area is America’s fastest growing city, with a population of 3.6 million.

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FEMA’s estimation of the death and destruction that such an earthquake could cause is absolutely frightening. It projects:

  • A tsunami up to five stories high.
  • At least 13,000 deaths.
  • 27,000 injuries.
  • 1 million people left homeless.
  • 1 million buildings destroyed or damaged beyond repair.
  • 2 million people without food and water.
  • Half the highway bridges collapsed.
  • Two-thirds of the railroad lines knocked out.
  • Two-thirds of the airports closed.
  • One-third of the fire stations destroyed.
  • Half of the police stations destroyed.
  • Two-thirds of hospitals out of commission.
  • Large areas of ground, including downtown Seattle and much of Portland, turned to into mush.
  • The power grid down for three months or longer.

But those numbers are based on it striking in February. If it hits in the summer — when thousands are at the beach — the death toll could climb far, far, higher.

“Let’s just say I would rather not be here,” Oregon State University paleo seismologist Chris Goldfinger, one of the world’s leading experts on the Cascadia fault, said of the big one. Goldfinger knows what he is talking about: He personally witnessed the Tohoku earthquake while attending a scientific conference in Japan.

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“This is one time that I’m hoping all the science is wrong, and it won’t happen for another thousand years,” Murphy said of the big one.

The Region is Unprepared

The earthquake, The New Yorker reported, would result in “the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada and the continental shelf to the Cascades, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west—losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries.”

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Most of the buildings in the region are not earthquake proof, and much of the critical infrastructure is located in places that would be flooded by the tsunami.

Around 75 percent of the buildings in Oregon are not designed to survive an earthquake, Ian Madin of the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries estimated. That includes two-thirds of the state’s hospitals, half of its police stations and one-third of its fire stations. Nor is there an early warning system in the area that could alert people to the quake.

To make matters worse, large areas of Seattle and Portland are built on filled-in land that will collapse during the quake, bringing down entire areas of the cities. Scientists believe that portions of the ground could drop several feet.

Hardest hit will be the elderly, the disabled and tourists on the beaches.

“We can’t save them,” Kevin Cupples, the city planner for the town of Seaside, Oregon, told the publication. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll go around and check on the elderly.’ No. We won’t.”

Madin believes that the state will not be able to evacuate the beaches because the tsunami will strike quickly. If it hits during the summer, thousands of beachgoers could be literally washed away.

Seismologists believe the last great earthquake on the Cascadia fault occurred in 1700 or 1701, long before American and Canadian settlers reached the area. Goldfinger thinks a major earthquake occurs in the region about every 250 years. The odds on a big earthquake happening in the next 50 years: one in three.

“When that tsunami is coming, you run,” said Jay Wilson, the chairman of the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission. “You protect yourself, you don’t turn around, you don’t go back to save anybody. You run for your life.”

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