Cascadia Catastrophe - Not If, But When

A 9.0-magnitude earthquake off the Washington and British Columbia coast along the 700-mile Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) – followed by a tsunami with 90-foot or more wave surges in some areas – is possible based on geological factors and historical accounts. Communities in and around the CSZ, and those with interconnected waterways, need to be prepared for the inevitable.

The last time an earthquake of this magnitude occurred in the region dates back to 1700, when a tsunami reported in Japan was attributed to CSZ seismic activity. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates where the Juan de Fuca plate intersects the Pacific plate generates enough pressure that, when the plates become immovable, the pressure builds until it is released via a very large earthquake (see Figure 1). Historical modeling indicates this occurs approximately every 200-500 years.

Although tsunami warnings along the British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon coastal regions would help people respond appropriately and move to higher ground, inland waterways such as Puget Sound and the Columbia River basin may be less aware of the threat. A comparable scenario was presented 7-10 June 2016 for the Cascadia Rising exercise, which was sponsored by: the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); Region 10; Washington Military Department, Emergency Management Division; Oregon Military Department, Office of Emergency Management; Idaho Military Division, Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security; United States Department of Defense U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM); United States Department of Defense U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM); and FEMA National Preparedness Directorate-National Exercise Division, and the Office of Response and Recovery.

Disasters in the Pacific

Recent devastating earthquakes around the Pacific “Ring of Fire” – for example, Indonesia in 2004 (9.1 magnitude, nearly 228,000 fatalities), Chile in 2010 (8.8 magnitude, more than 500 fatalities), Japan in 2011 (9.0 magnitude, more than 18,000 fatalities) – make planning for such an event within North America a necessity. Such earthquakes, coupled with 34 active volcanos (of 40 globally) along the Ring of Fire, mean that everyone in the public and private sectors should be prepared for a cataclysmic earthquake and resulting devastation.

Under FEMA Director Craig Fugate’s guidance, FEMA has instituted a permanent catastrophic planning effort to stabilize a catastrophic event within the first 72 hours. This is reflected in FEMA’s mission statement, “To support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate all hazards.” However, this does not mean that the federal government will be able to rescue everyone, which is why FEMA emphasizes that everyone following a disaster is a first responder. Due to shear logistical challenges, the success (or failure) of surviving a catastrophic event during the first 72 hours may depend on citizens within the local community.

It may take some time for federal resources to be made available to ease the agony of a catastrophic earthquake that the Cascadia Fault may produce. The normal response following a catastrophic incident is an outpouring of emotional support from across the country and from allies. Promises of support are made, but frankly, it is up to first responders (remember, everyone is a first responder) to take care of themselves individually. Then, and only then, can the individual be part of the greater response.

Preparing Communities With Actionable Plans

Although people have little control over what happens to them, they have complete and utter control of how they respond to what happens to them. Even in the most unlikely events, people can prepare for the unknown, be resilient, and set themselves up to be survivors. The determination to be a survivor, as an individual or a community, is probably the greatest factor determining success or failure – especially during the first 72 hours after initial impact.

When a catastrophic earthquake occurs along the CSZ, whole communities will be cut off from the rest of civilization for a significant amount of time. Lines of communication and electrical transmission cables will be severed; bridges and critical infrastructure destroyed; water contaminated; and access to life-sustaining supplies will be severed. Even large cities – for example, Vancouver, British Columbia; Seattle, Washington; and Portland, Oregon – accustomed to having on-demand resources, will find themselves completely without basic needs. At first, there will be shock and dismay with a consensus sentiment of “How could this happen to us?” Those who have access to communications will hear of outside efforts to help them, but it will take time. And time, is a commodity in short supply.

There will be patience for a little while, especially for those who are not severely affected. For those who are significantly impacted, there may be anger against first responders or those who are less affected. Anger then could escalate toward local, state, and federal civic leaders regarding the delay in disaster response. Even when FEMA and the federal government (including the military) are doing everything within their power to respond, delays are inevitable. Questions will arise about the nation’s vast military capability and its response. Although the Department of Defense (DOD) – through USNORTHCOM and USTRANSCOM – has Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) and logistical support missions respectively, its primary mission is Homeland Defense. In times of major disaster, the nation’s adversaries – both state sponsored and nonstate sponsored – have opportunities to take advantage of a perceived national weakness and may initiate attacks to further cripple the United States and gain geopolitical advantage. It is here that the DOD must focus its attention and critical resources during times of national emergency. Though the DOD will do everything in its power – repurposing its vast capabilities to save lives, mitigate human suffering, and prevent great property loss during a national emergency – recent budget cut backs have forced the DOD to focus on their primary mission, homeland defense.

The Next “Big One”

Throughout history, mankind has had many opportunities to mitigate potential disasters but, unless they occur frequently, it is human nature to unknowingly accept an exceedingly high level of risk and be oblivious to warning signs. The nation has received many such warnings in the form of earthquakes near the 9.0 magnitude along the Ring of Fire in Indonesia, Chile, and Japan. Nobody knows where the next 9.0-magnitude earthquake will strike, but the Cascadia Rising exercise was a great first step in preparation for such events. However, the question remains, “Will we be ready when the ‘Big One’ hits or was this merely an exercise in futility?”

Arthur Glynn

CAPT Arthur Glynn, U.S Navy (Retired), passionate for effective leadership and national defense, has devoted his professional life to ensuring that the American way endures, whether while in uniform or while developing technologies to bolster technological advantages and mitigating national level threats. He recently retired from the United States Navy, where he served as a North America Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) command center director. Previously, he served as a Navy emergency preparedness liaison officer to USNORTHCOM and FEMA District VIII. He has served as: president/chief executive officer of a manufacturing firm; technology, mergers, and acquisition consultant; emergency management advisor; and financial advisor. He is currently an independent consultant to industry, helping to protect the U.S. critical infrastructure.



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