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Northwest tsunami preparedness still shaky one year after Japan tragedy

Northwest tsunami preparedness still shaky one year after Japan tragedy

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The electricity is out. The food in your refrigerator is spoiling, and you can forget about ordering a pizza. Your cell phone died hours ago.

You've been fighting a stomach bug all day, but doctors and emergency rooms are swamped with more serious cases. And you can't get there anyway because streets and roadways are littered with fallen trees and power lines, washed out by broken water mains or blocked by landslides and crushed overpasses.

It might sound like a scene from a Stephen King novel, but it's the reality that Northwesterners will face when the region gets hit by a mega earthquake and tsunami like those that walloped northern Japan a year ago Sunday.

And what's more, there's a reasonable chance it will happen in your lifetime.

Scientists and emergency managers say they've learned a lot about earthquakes and tsunamis in the last year, but they fear the public is still woefully unprepared for the scope and aftermath of a disaster they say is certain to happen here.

"Are we ready? No way," said Bill Steele, a member of the seismology lab at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The most recent research indicates that major subduction earthquakes such as the 2011 temblor in Japan have shaken Western Oregon and Washington once every 300 to 600 years on average.

Scientists have determined the exact moment of the last great Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake — 9 p.m. Jan. 26, 1700, or 312 years ago. But the intervals between these great earthquakes is highly irregular, making it hard to know when the next will hit.

Still, Steele estimates there is a 15 percent chance the next one will occur in next 50 to 60 years.

He is especially worried about an inadequate number of safety and evacuation systems in coastal communities. More evacuation routes, wider roads and vertical "in-place" tsunami evacuation facilities are needed to ensure a timely, efficient evacuation for large numbers of people, he said.

Communities have "barely started" reacting to the wealth of research and understanding about Northwest earthquake hazards, said Chris Goldfinger, a researcher at the Oregon State University Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore.

Northwest communities have placed a priority on creating warning and alert systems, but not enough on facilities to evacuate and care for people once the quake occurs, Goldfinger said.

"Everyone will know we've just had a giant earthquake. ... At the same time, Goldfinger said, "we've spent next to nothing" retrofitting buildings and building vertical evacuation structures on the coast to shelter the public from tsunamis.

Steele said new engineering techniques can withstand the stresses of a mega earthquake. "Engineering does work," Steele said, "we really can build buildings that can ride through."

However, he said, "we know another one is coming and we can't be complacent — what a shame to wait until after the disaster to start doing something about it."

Stephanie Fritts and Grover Laseke, who oversee emergency management for Pacific and Cowlitz counties, respectively, say public interest in emergency preparedness spiked immediately after last year's Japanese earthquake and tsunami, but it faded rapidly. This lack of interest, Laseke said, "... is very troubling" but not surprising because there's no cultural memory of a massive earthquake here. Getting people to spend money and time preparing for an event that seems abstract and rare is a challenge for emergency managers, he said.

"It's a difficult process to get people interested in being prepared when there's nothing going on, and they have no experience with a large scale disaster," Laseke said.

To make it through the aftermath of a major disaster, families must have clearly defined plans, and sufficient supplies of medication, water and food to make it through at least three days in conditions that Laseke compared to a primitive camping trip.

"It's gonna be chaos," Laseke said, "We would see a loss of bridges and overpasses. Our ability to get around would be affected. Our water systems would be out of commission. Electricity and telephones would be affected, and buildings would collapse. And there will be dead people. ... People have to be prepared for that."

Fritts said the public should not assume it will just be able to leave the earthquake disaster zones, which could cover a swath of the region from Northern California to Vancouver, British Columbia. Even in Japan's well-prepared culture, residents were trapped, she noted.

"Overall, you're not going to be able to drive," Fritts said, "... People ask, 'what do I do in a worst case scenario?' and I say, 'You're gonna walk,' and they look at me and they're dumbfounded."

The prospect of such a large-scale disaster can have a paralyzing effect, Steele said. People tend to assume they don't need to prepare, because they won't survive. Despite the widespread destruction and loss of life in the Japanese earthquake, about 90 percent of the population survived.

"The vast majority of us are going to survive the earthquake and tsunami."

And for those survivors, having a plan and adequate supplies is critical, Steele said.

Preparedness is important to a long-term recovery effort because people who are able to meet their needs independently can focus on rehabilitating their communities and returning to work more quickly, he added.

"Being able to ride through that really empowers the recovery."

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