Report: Pacific Northwest Unprepared for Massive Earthquake

A report in the most recent issue of The New Yorker magazine examined the disturbing science behind a potential catastrophic earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone that would ravage the coastal Northwest of the United States. Most alarmingly for tech rescue teams and first responders, it seems the region’s infrastructure and population are largely unprepared for what the report suggests is an all-but-inevitable event.

The report by Kathryn Schulz looked at how Japan’s preparations and response were undermined by the sheer scale of the 2011 earthquake and tsunamis (we covered the the USAR response in the October 2011 issue of Fire Engineering). The report juxtaposes Japan’s earthquake preparedness with that of the Pacific Northwest; for many residents of the region, it seems, the danger of a massive quake is not a pressing concern.

“Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast,” Kenneth Murphy, who directs the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Region X, is quoted as saying.

Schulz’s report outlines the data that point towards an impending mega-quake. It also outlines the potential effects a quake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone would have on parts of Washington state and Oregon, and finds that the area–particularly in terms of infrastructure and evacuation preparedness–has not taken the threat seriously.

Unlike Japan, the Pacific Northwest has no early-warning system for a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami. And although it has been illegal since 1995 to build hospitals, schools, firehouses, and police stations in the tsunami inundation zone in Oregon, many other types of new construction are allowed. The report notes that these include structures such as energy facilities, hotels, and retirement homes. The report notes that, in the event of a major disaster, the chance of responders rescuing anyone from such sites are remote–virtually ensuring thousands of fatalities.

Read the entire report at


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