A region well-known for coffee, depression, and fatalism


It’s very strange to see all the hullabaloo about this New Yorker article on imminent catastrophic demise of the Pacific Northwest. I grew up there, I consider it one of the best places in the world to live, and most of my family still lives there…I ought to be horrified, terrified, and frantically calling my mother and telling her to move.

Unfortunately, we get this same story every few years. I lived in the Green River Valley, and every once in a while someone would notice that all that fertile farmland was built on top of a pyroclastic mudflow, and the valley was actually a great big chute for deadly lahars from Mt Rainer to the gates of Seattle.

And we would say, “eh.” I imagine the residents of Pompeii had the same attitude. And what are you going to do? There are very low odds of a cataclysmic disaster demolishing you and your home, but very high odds that packing up and moving somewhere else will painfully disrupt your way of life.

The article is good about pointing out that there are common sense things we ought to do now — I had no idea Oregon lacked any kind of building codes to deal with major seismic activity — short of moving away. But some of the hyperbole is counterproductive. “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast” is going to baffle everyone who has lived there: I5 isn’t a particularly good marker. It bisects a lot of towns, and it runs straight down the middle of the Willamette Valley. I think I’d be rather safer on the west side of I5 in Eugene than the east side of I5 in Seattle.

But if it motivates residents of the Pacific Northwest to get better prepared for disaster, that’s a good thing. But years and years of frequent predictions of catastrophe from volcanoes and earthquakes hasn’t had much effect, I doubt that this latest one will, either.

At least the local news is a bit realistic.

“The article had a lot of good information in it and there is a lot of real risk and a lot of preparation we need to do, but it was a little ‘Hollywood’ because it made it seem like it was going to be burning rubble if we had an earthquake,” said Vidale.

“The idea that the entire West Coast is going to be toast is kind of more a long-term economic reality. Some of the older buildings and some of the freeways might have problems; they might even come down, but mostly people are going to be isolated from their source — so food and water and power.”

Of course, the question is whether people will take steps to prepare for a more mundane catastrophe. Probably not.


  1. yazikus says

    A region well-known for coffee, depression, and fatalism

    And clogs. Clogs with socks. There are also more bikini-espresso bars per capita than any other state (at least in WA).

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    from Gizmodo http://gizmodo.com/theres-a-way-to-make-big-earthquakes-safer-the-us-wont-1717576674 :

    Personal preparation for a quake is good, but an early warning system is different in that it has the potential to save many more lives by quickly executing large-scale changes across a city. That’s why a group of researchers at USGS, Caltech, UC Berkeley, and other institutions have worked together on a prototype that can detect the shaking when and where it starts and send an alert that travels faster than the seismic waves.

    The warning is only a few minutes before the rumbling starts, Gizmodo points out that even a few minutes is sufficient to save MANY lives, on trains, subways, get people out of buildings, etc.
    When I lived in the BayArea, we occasionally would have quake drills, as preparation for an Incident. (kinda like Minneapolis would have tornado drills, to test their sirens)

  3. Numenaster says

    At least on the Oregon part of the coast they have installed tsunami warning sirens which get tested periodically. And our local Red Cross chapters have gone to more effort in recent years to discuss the preparedness that you’ll wish you had done when the Cascadia Subduction Zone drops several tens of feet again. But there sure will be a lot of houses sliding down the West Hills into the Willamette in Portland.

  4. unclefrogy says

    for those of us that live on seismically active ground it important to be aware of it regardless of what any governmental organizations do. It is not a case of IF such an event will occur it is WHEN it will occur, We have a distorted sense of time related to our short personnel life and tend not to see things always moving. There are numerous examples of developments, with questionable locations, Houses, roads, apartments highrises. more older than newer but still. We down in LA are waiting for “the big one” to some day do its shifting of the ground and the disruption that will follow. I remember when Mount St. Helens erupted and the news coverage extended to the other volcanoes in valleys with similar history and not dead yet.
    again it is not IF it is WHEN!
    uncle frogy

  5. Rich Woods says

    (kinda like Minneapolis would have tornado drills, to test their sirens)

    I grew up in a very flat and damp part of England, right up against the North Sea. When I was a kid they’d test the town’s flood warning systems once or twice a year: old WW2 air-raid sirens would wail out, making those in the generation older than me jump and twitch a little bit more than they’d care to admit to. The siren half a mile downriver of where I lived was, ironically, situated on top of a water tower.

  6. Jason Nishiyama says

    It’s along the hype that follows any discussion of a solar storm or asteroid impact. The media immediately goes to the worst case scenario unduly panicking the public. Then when that scenario doesn’t pan out, everyone thinks the scientists are full of crap for warning the public that we should do something to mitigate the risk.

  7. Owlmirror says

    Orting . . . “is built entirely on several layers of lahar deposits. Based on past lahar flow and the structure of Mount Rainier, Orting has been designated the most at-risk town in the event of lahar activity from the mountain. Scientists predict that lahars could reach Orting in as little as 30 minutes from origin.”

  8. JustaTech says

    The article is a bit, not misleading but maybe imprecise when it describes the tsunami impact on Seattle (specifically). Seattle is not on the Pacific Coast. Seattle is on the Puget Sound, which is connected to the Pacific Ocean up by the Canadian border. The Olympic peninsula (which lies between the Pacific Ocean and the Puget Sound) has its own mountain range (so it’s not like a tsunami would wash over the peninsula) and no major metropolitan areas.

    All of that is to say that while a Cascadia subduction tsunami would cause tremendous destruction, it wouldn’t wash away Seattle.

    And it’s also not like no one has thought about any of this. Just a few weeks ago the National Guard from several states was out for a training/planning exercise revolving around a serious earthquake. I believe that the person in charge is the head of the Idaho National Guard (nearest non-affected).

  9. davek23 says

    @yazikus re #1:

    A region well-known for coffee, depression, and fatalism

    And clogs. Clogs with socks.

    To me it will always be famous for its noble Sasquatch militia, and as the home of the endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. :)

  10. titolasvegas says

    I remember growing up in Enumclaw having volcano drills. Of course, the jr. high, sr. high, and 2 elementary schools are right next to the river that comes right off Mt. Rainier. We were told we had thirty minutes until the floe would hit us.
    I found a fun study about this from U of MN, Winona.
    And now I want to go to Bloedow’s. Grumble.

    tl;dr: I was infinitely more worried about the active volcano in my backyard than I was about the West coast sloughing off into the ocean.

  11. mithrandir says

    It’s also worth remembering that there’s a whole range of potential seismic activity in a seismically active zone. The Big One that would wipe out most of the greater Seattle metro area is the sort of thing one doesn’t worry about because there’s only so much you can do to plan around it.

    What happens a lot more often, though, are relatively smaller events like the Nisqually earthquake. That scale of event happens often enough that you do need to plan for it – for example, by replacing the Alaskan Way viaduct that was damaged by the Nisqually quake, as inspection showed that the structure wouldn’t hold up to another event of that size. (Of course, like any other large-scale urban transportation project, said rebuilding has been subject to much political hullaballoo and accusations of corruption and waste of varying levels of validity – but even the worst of those responses was better than just waiting for the viaduct to fall over in the next quake.)

  12. Usernames! (ᵔᴥᵔ) says

    get people out of buildings, etc.
    —slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) (#2)

    One of the easiest ways to kill or maim yourself is to run out-of-doors during an earthquake, particularly near any high-rise buildings. As the structures flex and bow (which is a good thing: brittle objects tend to snap), the loose bits of masonry as well as the window panes will tend to fall off. Any living thing running around below risks being crushed or shredded to death.

    Best position in the event of an earthquake is down low in a hallway or other area away from any windows or overhead objects. (Doorways are no longer recommended). More info.

    The early-warning system will save lives by enabling emergency personnel to shut down gas/electrical/subway systems ASAP. Remember the Great SF Burnout 109 years ago?? It was caused by gas lines ruptured by the quake. If the city had been able to shut down the gas quickly, the city would’ve never burned as badly.

  13. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re @13:

    One of the easiest ways to kill or maim yourself is to run out-of-doors during an earthquake, particularly near any high-rise buildings.
    [emphasis added – slithey tove]

    Got me.
    I left too much unsaid.
    Yes, exiting a building during an earthquake, (even during the very beginning of one), is a bad idea. That is why having a warning system is important. Even a few minutes is enough to evacuate many of the inhabitants, and get them far from the building, not just outside the building. Getting under a desk, may be protection from falling objects (ceiling tiles, etc) but doesn’t help when you end up in a collapsed building and have to be retrieved by excavation.

  14. madscientist says

    I just go *yawn* – there goes another one. Although large earthquakes can strike with no warning, volcanic eruptions are another thing. If you’re not even getting any rumbling in the area, nothing’s going to happen. We’ve also come a long way since the Mt Saint Helens eruption; portable instrumentation for monitoring is more affordable and much better these days. Odds are it will remain extremely rare that someone can make a decent prediction of when a known active volcano may erupt, but the seismologists and vulcanologists watching the area will certainly be aware of something different happening. It’s always easiest to scare the people who don’t know anything about these natural events. Even I can say nothing about Mt. Vesuvius aside from that it would be disastrous if were to erupt as violently as it did when it destroyed Pompeii; I’ve never looked at data from that volcano so I have absolutely no idea of the veracity of any claims that it may erupt. But people musn’t be complacent; the USGS could always use more money for its volcanic work and general seismic monitoring.

  15. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    Ah, I had “lahar” confused with “pyroclastic flow.”

    Or as it’d be called in the Central Valley, “a cold front.”

    *skims article* I’ll take my chances. >.>

  16. LicoriceAllsort says

    My family lives on/near a mountainside that slides about every 50 years. We had a decent slide in ’96 and were lucky to have not been buried. We just lost some cars, were isolated due to road washouts on both sides for several days, and were without electricity for 3 weeks. Eugene just got a 4-something quake a week or two ago; I do worry about a larger quake during the rainy season knocking more soil loose and burying my dad.

    The family that is safe from sliding lives close to the river, near enough to the coast that a decent-sized tsunami would pose a risk to them. There are no sirens anywhere close, and my grandparents are old.

    Blown out of proportion or not, we’ve seen some big quake activity on both sides of the Ring of Fire, and my family is positioned in such a way that even a decent quake would be catastrophic. The mud slide was bad enough. So, I worry.

  17. Vicki, duly vaccinated tool of the feminist conspiracy says

    Whether “get far from any building” is usable advice depends on where you are. Where I am now (in the PNW, but another lake inland from Puget Sound), five minutes might be enough time, and then cross my fingers that none of the huge standing construction cranes fall in my direction. Or I might stay put–this building is recent and might be solid enough for a major quake that isn’t the 9.0 Big One.

    When I used to work in Midtown Manhattan, the nearest “not near any building” was several crowded blocks to the highway next to the river. And thousands of other people trying to move at the same time, not all of them in the same direction.

  18. Karen Locke says

    The Pacific Northwest is seismically active, and subduction zones have a whole host of seismic ills associated with them. But we scientists can scream ourselves blue, and nobody is going to give a fat rat’s patootie until stuff starts shaking.

    I’ve lived my entire life in California, and watched as each big quake caused the Powers That Be to creak, groan, and lurch in the direction of seismic safety. So we build our public buildings and our bridges better than we used to. But people are still lackadaisical about it. The only ones I know personally who’ve done home emergency planning are all geologists.

    Husband and I are building a retirement home in the eastern part of the state, in an area that has considerable seismic potential, though it isn’t as active as California’s more famous coastal fault systems. We had to explain to our designer what we wanted for seismic stability. He struggled not to outright laugh at us. “But we don’t get earthquakes here!” Well, we do, they just don’t happen as often as those on the San Andreas. He wasn’t buying it, but ultimately caved because the customer gets what they ask for.

  19. canonicalkoi says

    Being a native of Western Washington for lo! all of my 56 years, my opinion is that the New Yorker is peopled by wimpy journalists, frightened of earthquakes, tsunamis, lahars, volcanic eruptions, and Bigfoot. It’s all good–keeps ’em all over on that other coast and not here.

    Now, if only my plan to import chupacabras to frighten off the Californians would work….

  20. says

    Having spent 20 years growing up in the flat, hot, barren, middle-of-nowhere west Texas, now that I’m in the enchanting PNW, I just don’t care. Where I grew up, there was no geography and certainly no water. It was about as uninspiring as you can get. If the big one comes . . . well, we had a good run, and that’s good enough for me. At least I didn’t have to spend the last years of my life in anymore 10.5 month hellish Texas summers.