Earthquake News

Planning for the megaquake, and after

Originally published March 9, 2013 at 10:14 PM | Page modified March 9, 2013 at 10:17 PM

Planning for the megaquake, and after

Two years after Japan’s megaquake and tsunami, the country is still struggling to recover. Facing the same kind of disaster, the Pacific Northwest is looking at steps to take over the coming decades to ensure that a monster quake here won’t send the region into a permanent economic tailspin.

By Sandi Doughton

Seattle Times science reporter

after Japan was rocked by the same type of monster quake and tsunami that will strike the Pacific Northwest someday, the world’s most seismically fortified nation faces another five to 10 years of rebuilding. Nearly 320,000 people are still in temporary housing. Mountains of debris have yet to be disposed of.

But Japan is recovering much more quickly than Washington and Oregon will if the next Cascadia megaquake strikes anytime soon, says Scott Miles, director of the Resilience Institute at Western Washington University.

Miles is helping lead an ambitious effort to boost the Northwest’s ability to bounce back from seismic disaster and avoid an economic and social tailspin that could cripple the region for decades to come.

Teams in Washington and Oregon recently completed the most detailed analyses undertaken of the damage expected from a major quake and tsunami. And for the first time, they’re looking way beyond the immediate aftermath to the weeks, months and years that will follow.

“We’re going to suffer loss and damage — it’s impossible to prevent all of that,” Miles said. “What we haven’t been doing ... until now is thinking about long-term recovery.”

Resilience plans for both states lay out a 50-year agenda for upgrading roads, utilities and buildings, and planning for the worst.

“A lot of this stuff can’t be done immediately,” said Tim Walsh, hazards chief for the Washington Department of Natural Resources. “But we want to get started.”

There’s no estimate of how much the upgrades would cost, but the reports paint a grim picture of the consequences if the region fails to act.

The economic impact of a magnitude 9.0 quake on the offshore fault called the Cascadia Subduction Zone is estimated at $49 billion in Washington and $32 billion in Oregon. (Japan’s March 11, 2011, quake was a magnitude 9.0.)

Estimates of the death toll from such a Cascadia quake and the tsunami it will trigger range as high as 10,000, with tens of thousands of people injured.

Utilities, businesses

The last time the subduction zone ripped was more than 300 years ago, in the year 1700.

Scientists have uncovered evidence for dozens of quakes in the past 10,000 years, with an average recurrence of about every 500 years. But some of the past quakes were separated by as little as two centuries.

After the dust settles from the next big one, if electrical power, water and telecommunications aren’t re-established within two to four weeks, businesses will start leaving the area, said Kent Yu, of Degenkolb Engineers, who chaired Oregon’s resilience planning.

If jobs vanish, people will follow and communities will fray, fueling a downward spiral.

“A policy of business as usual implies a post-quake future that could consist of decades of economic and population decline — in effect a ‘lost generation,’ ” Oregon’s report warns.

Washington’s report estimates it could take one to three months to restore power supplies to 70 percent of normal after a Cascadia Subduction Zone quake or a powerful quake on the Seattle Fault or another of the shallow faults that crisscross the state.

Fixing toppled transmission towers could take up to three years.

Water supplies and sewage treatment will be disrupted for weeks to months. In vulnerable areas like the Duwamish and Kent valleys, where shaking can liquefy soils and break pipes, residents can expect to line up at water trucks and use portable toilets for several months to a year.

Phone lines and Internet service won’t be back to normal for one to three months. With no power, people won’t be able to withdraw cash from ATMs.

With ports expected to be heavily damaged, Alaska’s food supply — most of which is shipped through Seattle — will be threatened.

Washington’s Transportation Department hopes to be able to open at least one lane on Interstates 5 and 90 in the Puget Sound area within a week, for emergency traffic. But full repairs to quake-damaged highways will take several years.

One lesson that emerged from the analyses is that the current advice to stock up on enough water and food to last three days is laughable, Yu said.

“You need to prepare for at least two weeks.”

Another eye-opener was the way so many things are interconnected, Miles said. Crews won’t be able to repair power lines until the roads are fixed. But road workers can’t roll without gasoline. And with no electricity, Internet and telephone service can’t be brought back online.

But Japan’s experience shows that much of the economic impacts can be reduced, Yu said. “It is completely doable.”

Japan better prepared

For decades, Japan had been replacing old sewer and water pipes with more seismically robust versions.

As a result, outages were repaired in days or weeks.

“In Seattle, we still have barrel pipes that are 105 years old, and we don’t have an aggressive program for upgrading that kind of stuff,” Miles said.

Japanese power companies also had scores of spare, high-voltage transformers on hand, as well as portable power substations.

But in the U.S., utilities keep few spares for the biggest transformers, which are vulnerable to damage and vital because they step down high-voltage electricity so it can be distributed.

After a quake, replacements would have to be built abroad, a process that can take six months to a year, Miles said.

The Washington report identified schools as the state’s top priority. Unlike Oregon, Washington has never surveyed schools statewide for seismic soundness.

Oregon’s review, ordered by the state Legislature, found that half of school buildings in the state are at high risk of collapse.

It’s important to get schools up and running quickly, not only for the students’ sake but for the community’s, Miles said.

“Businesses can’t operate if everybody has to stay home and watch their kids.”

More than 100 people from industry, government, businesses and universities contributed to the Washington report, which will be distributed this week to budget committee members at the state Legislature.

Gov. Jay Inslee was briefed on the report, Walsh said.

Fifty years spans many political generations, Yu pointed out.

But if Washington and Oregon begin to incorporate some of the reports’ recommendations into their long-term plans now, the job will eventually get done.

“How do you eat an elephant? A little bit at a time,” he said.

“We need to have a strategy to take care of this elephant.”

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or [email protected]

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