If humans could see the future, the West Coast would likely be spending every moment from now until its arrival preparing for the impending 9.0 Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake.
Off the coast, the Jaun De Fuca and North American tectonic plates — massive sections of Earth’s upper crust — currently sit locked in a centuries-long arm wrestling match along the 700-mile subduction zone.
Eventually, the fault line will give, causing a magnitude 9.0 earthquake. Geologists call this catastrophe a “megathrust.” According to researchers from the University of Washington, the magnitude 9.0 megathrust is the biggest threat to life as residents know it in the Pacific Northwest: worse than flooding, volcanic activity, landslides or tsunamis. In fact, the big quake could trigger all these disasters at once.
Is Lewis County ready?
That’s what Lewis County Division of Emergency Management (DEM) is trying to figure out this week. In workshops across the county, department staff are introducing community members to a tabletop exercise for earthquake preparedness alongside other agencies across the state and the Northwest.
Throughout the week, the discussion groups are being divided by communities. Monday’s was held at the Baw Faw Grange for residents of Boistfort, Adna, Doty and Pe Ell. Tuesday’s workshop was held at the Salvation Army in Centralia, with the focus on communities in the Twin Cities. On Wednesday, the event was scheduled to be held at the Winlock Senior Center for South Lewis County communities. On Thursday, the Bob Lyle Community Center in Morton will be the setting for discussions in East Lewis County communities.
The department also has various resources for earthquake preparedness on its website that are free to access.
As stated in a video shown by DEM on Monday, the likelihood of such a quake ripping through the region in the next 50 years is somewhere around 30%.
The likelihood of the earthquake happening at all is more like 100%.
When it does happen, it will almost certainly forever change the landscape and reorganize the way society as a whole functions. Normal lifelines in everyday existence will be cut, including access to communication, hospitals, grocery stores, electricity and potable water. After the earthquake, it could be weeks before any of these lifelines are restored.
Ross McDowell, deputy director of DEM, said Lewis County has around 96 bridges. In a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, those could very likely collapse. Water from the many tsunamis on the coast also has to go somewhere, creating the possibility of the Chehalis River “flooding backwards” from Grays Harbor upstream, McDowell said. There would also be landslides throughout the region.
These factors combined would separate Lewis County into dozens of isolated areas that community members could not travel between with standard means of transportation.
Erika Katt from DEM showed a map on Monday with the various isolation zones represented by different colors.
“It's a very colorful map. That's not a good thing. I like pretty maps, but this is scary,” Katt said.
But that’s exactly why DEM is taking its show on the road to communities throughout the county. In the magnitude 9.0 quake, the communities of each isolated island will have to fend for themselves while broader government services and disaster responders are overwhelmed. Therefore, staff said, it’s important to think about the resources in one’s community now, before disaster strikes.
The workshop encourages communities to establish a meeting point and resource pod. DEM also stressed the importance of understanding what you have to offer and what your neighbor has to offer. Maybe one neighbor has a four-wheeler, which could offer transportation. Maybe another has a radio, which could offer communication. Only by banding together and planning calmly can isolated groups put all these things together.
“For what assets that we have here in your community, this is probably one of the best communities there was during that 2007, 2008 flood for multiple reasons. One is self-sufficiency,” McDowell said, adding, “Out here, water doesn’t come out of the spigot, you’re like, ‘OK, let me grab my tools.’ That kind of attitude, that’s a survivor’s attitude.”
The tabletop scenario supposes that 96 hours earlier, the magnitude 9.0 earthquake shook the Cascadia Subduction Zone for five minutes, causing a tsunami on the coast between 12 and 80 feet within the hour following. Additional tsunamis and aftershocks continued for a minimum of 24 hours. Local lifelines would be affected as follows:
• Health and medical: Over 1,000 survivors with varying degrees of injuries have attempted to access hospitals. Most hospitals have suffered medium damage, which has resulted in the loss of approximately 40 beds at Providence Centralia Hospital and 20 at Arbor Health Morton Hospital. Countywide, over 300 fatalities have occurred.
• Safety and security: Government services are overwhelmed after the earthquake. Impacts to all other lifelines hamper the ability for agencies to provide basic life-saving services such as firefighting.
• Food, water and shelter: Over 7,000 displaced survivors are in immediate need of short-term sheltering, and over 25,000 people need feeding and hydration, for themselves and their pets. Over 3,000 buildings have severe damage and are deemed unusable for shelter including many schools and churches, which are typically used for sheltering purposes. More than 89% of potable water facilities have sustained medium to high damage.
• Energy (power and fuel): Most of Lewis County experiences complete blackout conditions. Energy infrastructure countywide has sustained medium to high damage.
• Transportation: Over 1,000 miles of state, county and private roadways have sustained medium to high damage or are inaccessible, requiring repair or clearance. Also, 90% of bridges have sustained damage, and are collapsed or are in imminent danger of collapse.
• Communication: Over 65,000 people have lost access to standard communication services following the earthquake. Lack of communication networks limit ongoing situational assessments.
• Hazardous materials: Over 100 facilities in Lewis County containing extremely hazardous substances have released chemicals, with approximately 300 individuals being exposed. 88% of wastewater facilities in Lewis County suffered medium to high damage.
Ninety-six hours in, extra power sources such as generators begin running out of fuel, and even if survivors could find their way to a gas station, there is no certainty of the station having the electricity necessary to pump fuel.
With infrastructure so highly affected, travel to or from anywhere will be slow, but 96 hours in, people who evacuated the coast and more tsunami-prone areas including Seattle and Portland will slowly begin arriving in the county, perhaps first from neighboring Pacific County.
While in that situation, resources would be stretched thin supporting locals and visitors, McDowell was sure this area was prepared and self-sufficient enough to be such a haven. He spoke about folks getting stranded in Boistfort and surrounding areas during the 2007 flood who were taken in by strangers and still welcomed.
“We'll do what we need to do to help our community and anybody who comes through who needs our help, because that's the kind of people you guys are out here,” he said. “That’s the kind of people there are in Lewis County.”
Visit https://lewiscountywa.gov/departments/emergency-management/ for more information or to sign up for the Cascadia Rising event in Morton on Thursday.