Staring Down The Barrel of Disaster

DoomsayersLately, my travels have taken me to Seattle a few times. Amazingly, I find I am terrified of the Cascadia Subduction Zone. I know, intellectually, that the odds it’ll rip loose while I’m there are maybe 20,000:1 or thereabouts – but that’s actually a whole lot higher than I like!

I do not understand humans: they move to Portland and Seattle (and go to the trouble of re-taking Mosul from ISIS) in spite of the obvious fact that god does not love those places.* People build new buildings, invest in businesses, move to nice apartments, etc – and they are basically joining a massive game of russian roulette.

The View from a Venture Capitalist's Board-Room.

The View from a Venture Capitalist’s Board-Room.

Your chances of dying in a car crash or an accident are 1:5000. Your chances of participating in the next Cascadia Subduction Zone tsunami (or landslide, or earthquake) are about 10-100 times lower but that’s not low. Your odds of dying in a plane crash are 1:100000. Yet people still fly to Seattle and Portland, as if it’s just no big deal. I even know people who work as computer security risk managers who choose to live in a place where sober estimates of the upcoming disaster are between 500,000 and 1.5 million dead.

I’m not sure what’s going on. It can’t be that people feel like they’ll be more comfortable if they die along with a whole crowd: disasters are intimately personal – each individual’s experience is unique and everyone dies alone in fear, there’s no collective comfort. I think it’s just denial: people just don’t plan very well. It’s probably the same mechanism as with global warming: “ah, screw it, there’s not much I can do, I’ll worry about that next year, maybe.” Except the time to worry about it never comes until the dogs all start howling and the birds take wing.**

It’s just weird. They say that when the Mosul Dam fails (note: “when” not “if”) a 60-foot high wall of water will crash through a city of 750,000 people, killing around 2/3 of them. Why is there anyone living in Mosul at all? Why is there anyone in Seattle, west of I-5? When I was coming in in my taxi I saw a nice block of apartment buildings constructed under the elevated freeway: crushed by concrete or drowned, either way it’s irrelevant to me whether the rent is good, or there’s nice parking – it’s eventually going to be a mass grave.

Last year I read Richard Waitt’s “In the Path of Destruction” about Mount Saint Helens, and was struck by the same thing: frequently there are warnings about oncoming disasters and people go, “eh, this is where I live. I like it here…” etc. I imagine there were people at Pompeii going, “hey, the mountain looks pretty bad, maybe we should leave.” And others replied, “eh. I just bought this villa, do you expect me to abandon it?!” Even those people seem to put it off for just another day, as if they felt they could dodge a pyroclastic flow or a tsunami.

So, it felt weird to stand in a beautiful board-room looking out over the water from the top floor of a building that was probably not earthquake resistant. Business as usual. The guys I was travelling with joked with me that we’d have a great view of the wave coming in from up there. And I felt like I was being a worry-wart when I heaved a big breath of relief when the plane’s wheels got off the untrustworthy ground and we were airborne.


New Yorker: The Really Big One

Richard Waitt: In the Path of Destruction – Eyewitness Chronicles of Mt Saint Helens

(* Unless you worship Sithrak)

(** Dogs can hear the high frequencies of earthquakes, which travel faster than the sounds humans hear.)


  1. Siobhan says

    Death toll of Alberta’s last natural disaster: 2. And that was technically from a collision during the disaster rather than the disaster itself.

    I think I’ll stay where I am.

  2. Brian English says

    This post reminds me of an introductory epistemology book.
    There was something in it along the lines of buying a lotto ticket. Chance are that it’ll be the winning ticket vary from several million to one to worse. You won’t win, but someone does. If you are rational, you say you know you won’t win. Even though there’s a chance you will.
    You’re justified in knowledge claim. Weirdly people buy tickets to something they know they won’t win. Desperation? Hope?

    When you fly a plane, there’s a chance it’ll crash. You have booked a room at your destination, say Seattle. You say beforehand that you know you’ll be tired when you get to the hotel room after the long flight. With a 1:100000 (your figure chance of crash and burn), you’re justified in saying you know you’ll be in that hotel room. 999999:100000 says you will. Even though there’s a chance you’ll die in flight.

    I have no profound point, labored as it is. Just reminded me of how we suck at epistemology and probability.

  3. says

    Earthquakes? Volcanoes! Practically my whole damn family lives in this long river valley stretching from Mt Rainier to Seattle, on soil enriched periodically by mud flows produced by abruptly melted glaciers and avalanches of sediment. Do they care? Nope. It’s beautiful, the climate is lovely (if a little damp), and the culture is diverse and interesting.

  4. kestrel says

    This reminds me of when I moved from Utah to Georgia. I was appalled to learn that they had a tornado SEASON, while they were appalled that I’d actually lived in an earthquake zone. And I was like “meh!” about the earthquake zone and they were “meh!” about the tornado season. I suppose it’s the disaster that you are used to ignoring that seems the least important.

  5. says

    Siobhan@1, that’s my take as well. I used to complain about ancestors that chose to move here, but then I thought about it. We get the occasional tornado, but overall we’re pretty safe from natural disasters. We’re very unlikely to die by earthquake or tsumani, and we don’t even really get ice storms like they do out east.

    Now, for the people who choose to keep living on flood plains…

  6. says

    I think I’ll stay where I am.

    I live on a mountaintop in a very geologically stable area, with a great big river (aka “drainage”) looping around the place. We occasionally get bad snow or ice and the power goes down for days at a time (which is fine, I have alternatives) The worst problem is that broadband internet is expensive. Uh. Yeah, I can handle that.

  7. says

    Brian English@#2:
    Weirdly people buy tickets to something they know they won’t win. Desperation? Hope?

    It’s the inverse of the scenario, yes. I guess it’s also the same thing that motivates the survivalist who believes something will cause a die-off of 99% of the population and collapse civilization, but somehow they won’t be part of the 99% – their assumption is always that they’ll survive. That’s why they are survivalists.

    Perhaps that’s why tsunamis are so scary: there aren’t a lot of survivors in the flood zone. With a volcano, maybe you can fantasize that the pyroclastic flows will wipe out the other side of the hill, or something. I don’t get it.

    These are low-probability, 100% costly events. When the cascadia goes, property values in Seattle and Portland will be lower than New Orleans 2 years after the flood. Yet, right now, they aren’t. People are building apartments and buying condos that are in the mouth of a cannon, and they’re paying top dollar for them.

    Speaking of low probability: there’s a story that Feynman once told someone that he was going to a certain conference and planned to present his proof of Fermat’s last. When he deplaned, there were journalists waiting to ask him about it and he said, “I just said that on the off chance that the plane crashed while I was coming here.” I suspect that probably didn’t happen; Feynman was a trickster god but journalists get pretty sniffy when you do that sort of thing. It’s probably another “Feynman Story” that grew as it was told.

  8. says

    it’s the disaster that you are used to ignoring that seems the least important.

    Maybe it’s the “eh, I’ve survived those before.” After you’ve lived on the side of the pointy conical mountain for a long time, like your ancestors did, you conclude the pointy conical mountain is your friend.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    Greetings from the intersection of tornado, hurricane, water moccasin, crazed shooter, and (coming soon!) Zika virus country!

    Marcus Ranum @ # 6: I live on a mountaintop …

    Prime lightning-smitin’ territory! Have you kept up a regular subscription of sacrifices to Zeus, Thor, Yahveh, Take-haya-Susa-no-wo, et alia?

  10. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#9:
    Prime lightning-smitin’ territory!

    Which is why my old 1805 farmhouse still has a working lightning-rod!

    Although, I sense a business opportunity: perhaps someone should open a temple to sithrak in Portland and Seattle. Accept donations to pray on the town’s behalf, for “please don’t fuck us up too badly!” If it happens, you can say that it would have been worse without the donations, and if it doesn’t happen, then the donations worked.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 10: … a working lightning-rod!

    The warranty has probably expired. How long since you tested it?

  12. Steve Morrison says

    Marcus Ranum @#6:
    The Feynman story is almost identical to one about G. H. Hardy, who once sent a telegram reading “I have proved the Riemann Hypothesis” just before a journey of some kind. He explained later that he was sure he wouldn’t die on the trip, because God would never let him die under circumstances where people would think he’d proved the Riemann Hypothesis! (He was really an atheist, but liked to pretend that God was out to get him personally.)

  13. says

    Steve Morrison@#12:
    The Feynman story is almost identical to one about G. H. Hardy, who once sent a telegram reading “I have proved the Riemann Hypothesis”

    Sounds like that’s where Feynman got it. I don’t remember which of his books it was recorded in (I have pretty much every audio recording of Feynman, every video, and all the books, so it’s a bit of a blur)

  14. springa73 says

    Historically, there were good reasons why people tended to congregate in some types of disaster-prone areas. Flood plains and areas near volcanoes tended to have exceptionally fertile soil, coastal locations allowed for sea trade and fishing, etc. With contemporary technology, though, the majority of people don’t need to live in such areas to support themselves – yet they often continue to do so for less tangible reasons such as liking the culture or lifestyle or “feel” of a particular place, regardless of risk. Of course, economic opportunity is also a major factor for many, perhaps most, people.

  15. says

    Yep! Pompeii sure is beautiful, I hear! And it would have great access for fishing and boats to Rome, for the wealthy. Seattle’s pretty good, too.

    You’re right that there are plenty of good reasons to live in those places. What’s so interesting is when there’s a disaster, everyone’s shocked. When Katrina took out New Orleans (which will be flooded again and again in the coming century) the first thing I did was look at the congressional record to see if there had been any political-level discussion of the levees. Sure enough, it had been talked about regularly, but had been deferred because… Eh, it’s 50/50 it’ll happen on someone else’s watch.