Don’t be scared, be prepared: A response to the New Yorker article “The Really Big One”

Shelley Chestler, UW seismology graduate student

The July 2015 New Yorker article “The Really Big One,” by Kathryn Schulz, shook up the Pacific Northwest (PNW) more than any earthquake has since the Magnitude-6.8 Nisqually earthquake in 2001. In the article’s most dooming statement, the head of the Cascadia FEMA division was quoted saying, “everything west of I-5 will be toast.” This assertion scared the living daylights out of PNW residents, creating a sense of terror and hopelessness that was the antithesis of what the article meant to do: to spur the region into preparing for this potentially devastating event.

Personally, as a strong believer in good science communication, I liked the article a lot. It was well written, read like a good story, and the science was interesting and understandable. In fact, as a graduate student in seismology, I was at first surprised that the article caused such uproar.   My familiarity with the Cascadia hazard numbed me to the shock many others experienced upon first learning the news that we do indeed get large, or as Seattle reporter Sandi Doughton calls them in her book[1], “Full Rip” earthquakes, here in the PNW.

What is the proper reaction to the article? You probably should not go on living without batting an eye like I did, nor should you pack up your family and belongings and flee eastward. The answer is preparation. For the past month I have been attending talks in the UW Alumni Association’s Surviving Disaster: Natural Hazards & Resilient Communities lecture series. Before each talk, when the dean of the College of the Environment, Lisa Graumlich, gives her typical introductory spiel, telling us to turn off our cell phones and reeling off the speaker’s credentials, one line catches my attention. She says, “We want to focus on preparation to prevent hazards from becoming disasters.”

Each time she says that my head nods in agreement. The looming “really big one”, or any other natural hazard, is not a disaster until it actually harms humans. And though the Cascadia earthquake could happen tomorrow, it could also happen 200 years from now. That means we have between 1 day and 200 years to prepare ourselves and our infrastructure to prevent as much damage, injury, and loss of life as possible.

Earthquake preparation is one of those daunting tasks, like vacuuming under the couch, that most of us put off from year to year.   I’m guilty of that too. In fact, it was not until this year that I started filling empty milk and juice jugs with water and stowing them in my basement. My roommate was more on top of it. He has kept an entire shelf of canned refried beans stocked since we moved into our house 3 years ago.

There are many other steps you can take to prepare besides storing food and water. Make an earthquake kit with a first aid kit, space blanket, flashlight, extra batteries, and hand-crank radio. Strap down your water heater and remove heavy objects from high shelves. Attend a local earthquake-preparedness or home-retrofit class. Finally, make sure you have an out-of-region contact who friends and family can call to make sure you are okay in case the local cellular network goes down. By taking the proper steps, you can be your own first responder.

One comforting idea that I have taken home from the Surviving Disaster: Natural Hazards & Resilient Communities lecture series is that people and communities are capable of doing amazing things to help each other during disasters. Jeb Horne, a journalist from New Orleans, talked about how after Hurricane Katrina, individuals rowed around in their own boats, saving people from attics and rooftops, and how people from all over the United States traveled to the New Orleans area to volunteer in makeshift food kitchens. Kate Starbird, a professor in the UW College of Engineering, explained that after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, people from all over the United States, many who had never been in contact with each other, banded together on social media to organize and relay important information and assist with the relief effort. Starbird calls this response digital volunteerism and has studied it after other natural disasters such as the flooding in the Catskill Mountains after Hurricane Irene in 2011. I believe that after the Cascadia earthquake communities in the PNW will come together and that any community relief efforts will only be amplified if we are more prepared.

I’ll leave you with a rather cheesy statement: don’t be scared, get prepared! Also, believe in your local community; it will have your back. Finally, if you are still feeling shaken from the New Yorker piece, read the author’s follow-up article responding to the outcry over the original. It clarifies some of the more terrifying statements in her first and has some good tips on preparedness.  I liked it just as much as I liked the first one.

[1] By the way, Sandi Doughton’s book The Full Rip 9.0 is worth a read!