Kathryn Schulz, the New Yorker contributor who sparked a wave of well-deserved alarm—and made the emergency bug-out bag industry's year—is out with a new and terrifying article about just how fucked those of us in the Pacific Northwest are.
Schulz, if the name doesn't immediately trigger a panic attack, is the author behind "The Really Big One," a 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker piece about what exactly is going to happen in this region when the fault line known as the Cascadia Subduction Zone finally blows and a 100-foot tsunami stretches across the West Coast. Memorably, Schulz quoted a FEMA administrator who said everything west of I-5 will be "toast." (And I wouldn't take much comfort in that if you happen to spend most of your time east of the freeway, either. You may not get hit with a tsunami, but you'll be toast, too, albeit toast that's a little less soggy.)
But four years later, the PNW still isn't prepared for a 9.0 earthquake. In Washington state, a survey completed this year found that there were over 4,500 buildings at risk of collapse in a major quake, including more than 1,000 in Seattle alone (and you can find out if you live in one here). We have no early warning system, no city-wide emergency plan, and the best advice Seattle's leaders have given us is to make friends with our neighbors and stock up on food. This city (this region, this country) is totally unprepared for a natural disaster, which is something many of us would rather not consider.
Just as I'd almost blocked out the fact that great swaths of this city are prone to liquefaction (and don't click that link if you care about your mental health), here comes Schulz, clogging up my nightmares once again. This time, her panic-inducing piece is called "Oregon’s Tsunami Risk: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," and it's fucking terrifying—not just because of the fault line, but because of how that state has chosen to deal with it. An excerpt (emphasis mine):
Last week, the governor of Oregon signed a law that, among other things, overturns a 1995 prohibition on constructing new public facilities within the tsunami-inundation zone. When the law, known as HB 3309, goes into effect, municipalities will be free to build schools, hospitals, prisons, other high-occupancy buildings, firehouses, and police stations in areas that will be destroyed when the tsunami strikes. (Individuals and private entities were already allowed to build everything from hotels to nursery schools to nursing homes in the inundation zone.) Put differently, the law makes it perfectly legal to use public funds to place vulnerable populations—together with the people professionally charged with responding to emergencies and saving lives—in one of the riskiest places on earth.
That is not an exaggeration. If there is anything that my reporting on the Cascadia subduction zone made horrifyingly clear, it is that, when the tsunami hits, virtually nothing and almost no one within the inundation zone will survive. (“There aren’t many injuries in the tsunami zone,” one seismic expert with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, or dogami, told me at the time. “People just die.”) Those who are in it when the earthquake starts will have just ten to thirty minutes to evacuate—a timeframe that, however viable it might be under other circumstances, will be made desperately inadequate by the impact of the earthquake itself. That quake will leave people in the inundation zone—as across the Pacific Northwest—injured, in shock, and anxious to ascertain the safety of their colleagues, friends, and loved ones. In that condition, they will need to escape damaged or destroyed buildings and make their way to higher ground, despite crumpled roads, collapsed bridges, downed electrical lines, and all the secondary disasters an earthquake can trigger, from power outages and fires to landslides and liquefaction.
Okay! Sounds like prime real estate for a hospital.
I don't know what the fuck Oregon lawmakers were thinking. Actually, maybe I do: They were thinking of money. The Oregon Coast is one of the most scenic coastlines in the country. People want to live there—or own their second homes there—and by banning public-funded buildings like schools and fire stations from these areas, it sends the message that they are not safe places to invest in (because they are not). Now, lawmakers could have mandated that buildings constructed in the inundation zone meet tsunami-safe codes, but that, of course, would have, according to Schulz, doubled the price of construction.
According to scientists, there is a nearly 40 percent chance of the Cascadia Subduction Zone rupturing in the next 50 years. That's fucking enormous. And yet, all across this country, residents and lawmakers alike are choosing to stick our fingers in our ears and start humming when it comes not just to natural disasters like earthquakes, but preventable disasters like climate change, too.
Reading this piece, I wondered, once again, why humans are so bad at planning for the inevitable. Clearly, like all animals, we're prone to caring more about our immediate needs than the future. It's a survival mechanism, and it's not a bad one if we still lived like our hominid ancestors. Long-term planning really takes a backseat when you're just trying to figure out what to eat. Still, there is no excuse for world leaders, especially, to lack all sense of foresight, and no one is as guilty of this as Donald Trump. Not only did he withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord—against the advice of not just climate scientists but also experts on U.S. military—his budget eliminated funding for an early earthquake warning system (this, was, thankfully, overturned in Committee).
Despite the head-in-sand actions of the man we elected to office, people do, on occasion, have the capacity to make good decisions—to expend resources on the future instead of simply assuming, against all evidence, that everything will work out. So it seems to me that it would behoove all of us mere voters as well as our leaders to take the long view once in a while, especially when it comes building schools and hospitals and prisons and homes right in the path of the coming tsunami.