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The Big One is Coming

March 3rd, 2018 by dk

I’m not usually a fan of anniversary stories — particularly those attached to tragedies. Too often they ask us to care again about something we would have cared more about the first time, had we known then what we know now.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s family voiced concerns when a movement began to recognize the civil rights activist and martyr with a national holiday. Early efforts focused on the day his assassination woke a nation, but his family insisted we should celebrate the day he was born — not the day he died. They were right.

Today marks an exception to that rule. On this day, many years ago, people on two continents died unexpectedly and it’s worth remembering why. In Japan, it became known as the Silent Tsunami. Native Americans tell stories about a Ghost Forest. Nobody understood what caused those deaths until just a few decades ago.

Scientists only recently mapped the shifting tectonic plates beneath the Pacific Ocean. Geologic forces are pushing the plates in opposite directions, creating the Cascadia Subduction Zone. It stretches from Mendocino, California to Winter Harbor, British Columbia. The pressure along this fault line slowly builds, until the plates slip to relieve the pressure, creating a massive earthquake and enormous tsunamis.

Nobody alive today can speak to the horrors that happened on this day in 1700, but everyone alive today can do things to lessen the horror when it repeats. Because it will. The cataclysm that occurred 318 years ago today was the latest of a long series of recurring events.

Happy Anniversary, Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake! Today is a day to look back and look ahead because that’s how anniversaries are useful. We must face three fixed facts before we can move on.

First, the next occurrence of this earthquake is overdue. According to at least one geologist, it’s way overdue. Oregon State University professor Chris Goldfinger, using core samples off the coast of Oregon, traces 28 similar events over the past 6000 years.

Only once before, by Goldfinger’s measurements, have quakes been separated by more than 250 years. The average has been about every 200 years. Today we’re marking 318 years. Each delay adds more pressure. In this way, it’s less like a train than a sneeze.

Second, the next quake’s potential seismic power could be 9.0 or even 9.2 on the Richter scale. The shaking could last between four and five minutes. Tsunami flooding would quickly follow.

At that level, it would represent the largest natural catastrophe ever faced by the United States of America. Dams and bridges will fail. Landslides will block roads. Power grids will snap. Gas lines will explode.

People will find themselves separated into thousands of disconnected “islands” of survivors — workers, residents, and stranded passersby — forced to cooperate or compete for survival. In less time than it takes to make a bowl of microwave popcorn, society may be stretched and torn in ways we’ve never seen.

Third, nothing can be done to prevent it.

But much can be done to prepare for it. The state and federal governments could do quite a bit more to reinforce bridges and to strategically plan for shoring up the most vital points to reconnect those islands of isolation.

Families can plan where and how they will meet, in case of this or any other disaster. Storing canned goods and water for two weeks’ survival is considered prudent. You should pack a so-called “go bag” with emergency essentials. Stash one in your car and another near the front door of your house.

If your house was built before the early 1950s, you may want to inquire whether it was attached to its foundation, or simply placed upon it. Some neighborhoods are already mapping special needs and resources for their immediate area.

If preparing for an unavoidable disaster is what it takes for us to get to know our neighbors and understand how to help one another, so be it. With proper planning and just a little bit of luck, an epic disaster could be remembered by survivors as little more than a major inconvenience.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at Visit to learn more about how you can be prepared.

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