Home Emergency Management News Q&A: The Big One, a Pacific Northwest Megaquake

Q&A: The Big One, a Pacific Northwest Megaquake


Talking PNW mega-earthquake with John Pennington

It's been called The Big One, and goes by other fierce monikers like the Pacific Northwest Megaquake. And it hasn't even happened yet. Regardless of names, it will be large, and it's coming soon. Exactly how soon this event will strike the northwest region of the U.S. depends on whom you talk to.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) is a 800-mile fault that stretches from Northern California to Northern Vancouver Island. Scientists and other regional experts predict that a large (magnitude-9.0 or larger) earthquake along the CSZ is likely to occur at some point in near future, as scientific evidence shows that a magnitude 8.0 to 9.0 quake occurs along the fault, on average, once every 200 to 500 years. A strong earthquake along the CSZ would likely result in a devastating tsunami and an unfathomably complex disaster scenario for emergency management professionals in the Pacific Northwest (PNW).

In order to determine what to expect from an emergency and disaster management standpoint when The Big One does become a reality, we consulted with EDM Digest's own John E. Pennington.

Pennington, a former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Regional Director, founded the Department of Emergency Management in Snohomish, WA, just outside of Seattle. He is a senior adjunct faculty member for the Department of Homeland Security’s National Emergency Training Center/Emergency Management Institute, and has extensive emergency management, homeland security, and public policy leadership experience at all three levels of government and with dozens of federally recognized tribes and Alaska Native Villages.

The BIG ONE, a devastating MEGAquake, a disaster of EPIC proportions. Wordy and dramatic descriptions aside, how concerned are you about a large earthquake occurring in the Pacific Northwest -- an event that some experts say is overdue in the region?

Pennington: The Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) is not merely a threat; it is the threat, from northern California through southern British Columbia. As each day unfolds, technology reveals an even greater magnitude of the potential impacts from the CSZ and the seismic networks throughout the regions.

That being said, the coastal areas of the west coast, from Crescent City, California all the way to Vancouver Island, British Columbia are going to be at the highest risk of liquefaction, subsidence, and tsunami. Imagine, if you will, a mirror image of the Tohoku 2011 earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Japan occurring here on the west coast. Similar images and similar effects.

The coastal areas along the American west coast, north of San Francisco, are already generally isolated and economically fragile. They will be impacted dramatically and it is not inconceivable that complete recovery could last for decades and that there would be dramatic inconsistency in how that recovery occurs.

The silver lining of sorts throughout the Pacific Northwest is that communities inland that are most populated, including Seattle and Portland, have been building to updated seismic standards that should withstand a degree of the long-term vibrations of the earthquake itself.

Will there be damage? Undeniably yes -- major damage. But most experts agree that the most dramatic impacts, like Tohoku, will be along the entire coast.

You have vast experience in the EDM field in the PNW. Based on your experience in the region, do you feel the PNW is well equipped to handle a devastating megaquake event? Why or why not?

Pennington: This is a work in progress, but the capabilities are definitely moving in the right direction. One of the first series of questions we asked ourselves here was what exactly success might look like for both response coordination, the transition to recovery, and recovery itself. Aligning and managing those expectations for as many jurisdictions as possible (and those they serve) is as critical as the response itself in my view.

The Pacific Northwest has been very progressive in its approach to mitigation over the past two decades (Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant, even back to Project Impact), and that should minimize some damages when CSZ rips, but systemically emergency management is still being developed under new, assertive philosophical leadership in the Pacific Northwest.

I give great credit to the states of Washington and Oregon for addressing the need to develop true, statewide systems of emergency management -- creative mechanisms in the case of Washington that should help alleviate some of the pressures of smaller communities being impacted.

Partnerships between the states and our Canadian partners, irrespective of borders, are also establishing a larger network of response coordination. That being said, regions outside of Puget Sound still have a clear understanding that state and/or federal help will be delayed during this event and they must, in turn build capacity themselves as much as practicable. Managing those expectations.

Many emergency management professionals contend, and I concur, that the greatest long-term impacts from the CSZ will be upon the already fragile transportation infrastructure of Puget Sound and the Portland metro area, and additionally the Interstate 5 corridor connecting them. In our case, it isn’t as simple as merely repairing or replacing a bridge or two.

Environmental issues and outright lack of available areas to construct transportation infrastructure will hamper an already congested system that will inevitably fail, regardless of how far inland from the exposed coast Seattle and Portland sit. In this vein alone, the issues of longer term recovery becomes very problematic, especially for the strong economic engine that is the Pacific Northwest (think Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks, and on and on).

If you are forced to drill it down to the most basic terms, what is the absolute most important thing that EDM officials need to get right in order to survive a huge CSZ event?

Pennington: Create systemic frameworks and not solely prescriptive plans for success. I preach this as often as possible and strongly believe that in the case of the CSZ, we really do not know what it will look like, no matter how hard we try. Tohoku gave us a visual glimpse, no doubt, but the CSZ on the West Coast still will be different and with personal and dramatic impacts.

Genuine panic, across the spectrum, will simply not allow for tightly drawn plans to be adhered to as previously drilled or exercised. Hence, a framework approach that addresses the actual parameters by which response coordination should take place (large goalposts that can bend and bow in the wind), and then within those goalposts, develop or attempt to execute the traditional (but still flexible) plans within those frameworks. The Pacific Northwest and its state and federal partners are heading down this path right now, and it will yield positive results in the end.

Far too often, emergency management is taught to build these prescriptive plans that tell us exactly what to do, when to do it, what the next steps are, and on and on. It makes perfect sense in some areas of course, like within an Emergency Operations/Coordination Center or within the realm of ICS in the field. But prescriptive plans on the larger, strategic level during catastrophic disasters can often breed delay and conflict.

Matt Mills Matt Mills has been involved in various aspects of online media, both on the editorial side and on the technology side, for more than 16 years. He holds a Master's Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, and is currently involved in multiple projects focused on innovation journalism.