This entry was inspired by a friend on the other side of the country, emailing to ask if I knew about this:
Of course, everybody in the Pacific Northwest knows about the Cascadia Subduction Zone, and the long overdue “Big One” earthquake. But it’s not going to sink in until it hits.
Near the top of my list when I bought my house was earthquake retrofit. A lot of gay guys, their first thought would be “Decorate!” Mine was “Earthquake safety!”
I researched, and it emerged that the most concrete (so to speak) thing you can do is keep the house from jumping off its foundation. That means bolting these big metal plates between the concrete and wood. At first I was going to do it myself, but like most one-time jobs I would have made a lot of mistakes, and have to re-do it later. So I got bids and paid for the work. A good thing too. I had bought the wrong length bolts. They would have poked all the way through the foundation wall.
I went with the contractor who was the most, shall we say, neurotic about earthquakes. I knew he was my man when my eyes began to glaze over as he rambled on about shear planes and foot-pounds. This guy was into it. He’d to the best job that could be done.
But of course, nobody really knows. Earthquake bracing is not something you can test, and then have a second try.
When the job was done and the inspectors came by to sign off, they expressed a range of opinions. One related a city in South America, I’ll call it “Terremoto”. Terremoto had similar architecture to Portland. Terremoto was struck by an earthquake of similar magnitude to what’s expected here, and “80% of the houses survived”. That sounded pretty heartening. On the other hand, another inspector thought the situation would be like your whole world inside a rotary clothes dryer for three minutes. Not so heartening.
But humans are pretty hard to kill off. The Johnstown Flood of 1889 is distant enough in human memory that it is no longer part of pop culture. If not for that Big One, there would have been no “the” Johnstown Flood. Johnstown flooded every time it rained hard. Tiptoeing across their city streets on planks, balanced above sluicing water, was a way of life. The decrepit dam upstream, which everybody knew about, had cried wolf innumerable times by resolutely not breaking in flood after flood.
The Big One for Johnstown arrived in the middle of the night, in the form of the homogenized remains of the lake and dam. This roiling mass was so high and swift it snapped the telegraph lines, precluding any warning. It had picked up various miscellany on its journey. Among these were the stock and infrastructure of a barbed wire factory. After covering Johnstown to a depth only its taller buildings poked above, the watery mass took a siesta. It clogged the arches of a bridge down from the city, and so lay as a lake over Johnstown, until rescue workers finally blasted the debris some days later.
So: Zero warning. Complacent population. Woken from sound sleep in the middle of the night. What do you think the death rate was? This was an ordinary town, with its share of babies, elderly, the bedridden and infirm. What percent? Less than ten percent. Pretty hard to kill off.
If I had the time to accumulate a Ph.D. in Sociology, I’d study what people do when the game changes. “Game change”, is, after all, what people worry about. Big game changes: Global warming. Economic collapse. Solar flare. Alien contact. Or personal game changes: Losing your job. Cancer. Your teenage daughter getting pregnant. But always, changing the game. The old rules are gone. You won’t know what to trust. You have to figure things out all over again.
In the sociology of it, there would be lots of questions: What’s the correspondence of people who come out on top in the new game vs. the old game? Are they the same persons? Is it random? Do new folks come to the fore, who nobody ever noticed in the old game?
More important for the individual, are there some personal qualities that go with being able to make it, no matter the game? If I had to guess, I’d expect those qualities would include health, good attitude, and a wide range of practical skills. What I suspect even more is that people who have not mastered the current game are less likely to make it in the new one. Particularly, if they are so wrapped up in preparing for some particular game change they’re out of touch with current reality.
Doom sayers are occasionally right, by the law of averages; but it seldom does them or anybody else any good. And they have low odds on the particular doom.
That said, I do have fairly complete earthquake kit made up, though housemates keep borrowing the duct tape. The tape is for strapping plastic over the hollow frames of the windows, after the concussions have smashed all the glass out.
For a couple years, we saved all the two-liter plastic soft drink bottles as they got empty. Rinsed, filled with water, and tucked away, they wait. In field work, I came to like these for emergency water. They don’t expand and contract with temperature and elevation, as those cubical water containers do, and so wear little holes in their corners. The cubitainers might only drip, but those slow drips add up to empty, when you finally open them in the middle of the desert.
Those two liter bottles could jostle around under the seats of the rig, all the summer field season. When we cleaned out in the fall, we’d play catch with them. They could survive a bounce on pavement, from up to a six foot drop.
So maybe we’ll make it through the Big One. Or maybe the archeologists will dig up my earthquake bracing plates and be impressed with my design makeover after all, how I artistically placed them all around the perimeter for feng shui. The sociologists will wonder why we needed so many plastic bottles to play catch.