The ledgers documenting Japan’s seismic activity since 599 AD recorded no shaking on January 26, 1700. As the villagers of Kuwagasaki went about their daily activities, they couldn’t have known that a catastrophic event was unfolding in a still nameless country 5,000 miles away. The event, which came to be known in Japan as the Orphan Tsunami, swallowed 13 homes outright and unleashed a fire that would consume 21 others by the midnight hour. Today, we know this incident was caused by the “mother” of all seismic events: a 9.0 subduction zone earthquake that severely shook northern California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, bringing a tsunami to our shores many times more destructive than the faint echo that reached Japan.
We need to talk. Let's have the Cascadia Conversation.
Locations throughout the U.S. face some degree of natural disaster risk -- North Carolina has hurricanes, Oklahoma has tornadoes, Missouri faces floods, Colorado braces for annual wildfires. The people in these areas are familiar with how to prepare for and respond to the risks they face, from the household level to the government level because, at regular intervals, nature has paid them a personal visit. Experience is the best teacher.
The Pacific Northwest stands at a unique and frightening crossroads with a looming Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. Perhaps never before has a population so large awaited an event so big, armed with such little personal disaster experience.
None of us - reaching as far back as our great, great grandparents - have experienced a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, an earthquake that could release 1,000 times more energy than the San Francisco earthquake that knocked us off our feet in 1989.
It has been 317 years since the Cascadia Subduction Zone last unleashed a 9.0 magnitude earthquake. While seismic activity doesn’t follow an orderly schedule, 10,000 years of earthquake evidence gathered by scientists at Oregon State University suggests that we're 10 months pregnant with our next big quake. It was only twenty years ago that we realized we’ve spent the last two centuries building a thriving civilization on shaky ground that will one day give way under our feet.
You've probably experienced a power outage before, so take yourself back to those three or so hours of inconvenience when you scurried around for candles, discovered the batteries in your flashlight had died and worried about the contents of your refrigerator rotting under warming temperatures. And then there’s the feeling of relief when the lights come back on just as unexpectedly as they went out. Now imagine that those three hours without power stretched into three days, then three weeks, then three months, and you're still waiting. Now imagine your water stopped running, your toilets stopped flushing, your stove stopped cooking, your phone stopped sending and receiving calls (and texts), your house was shaken like the contents of a snow globe and your car was rendered unusable - for months. This is what we expect to occur in the aftermath of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. Although it seems unimaginable, it is factual. Like a cruel game of musical chairs, there's no telling when the music will stop or where you will be sitting when the forces that created the Cascade Mountains reawaken.
When people learn about a new and frightening threat to their safety and well-being, we quite often do something fascinating: we do absolutely nothing. It’s as if we believe that somehow by ignoring the issue, it will go away. My grandpa, who would have surpassed his 100th year by now, told me that cigarettes were commonly referred to as “coffin nails” when he was a young boy, yet into the 1950s tobacco companies continued to use doctors to tout cigarettes brands as the “doctor’s choice” for nursing mothers.
Since the invention of the automobile, we've been fatally crashing them, yet well into the '80s we let our kids wrestle un-belted in the backseat as we blazed down I-5. The point of these examples? We knew the risk, yet did nothing to change our behavior until it became socially unacceptable. Today, you'd face social pariah status for lighting up a cigarette in your neighbor's nursery or driving up to daycare with your toddler propped un-belted on your lap, but it took time for us to expect different behavior from one another. It took time to hold one another accountable and for these actions to join the ranks of “socially unacceptable” behavior. Today, despite knowing we face the threat of a historic and life-altering earthquake, we don't expect one another to prepare for it and we aren’t calling one another out for not preparing. This has to change, and it starts with you. Your actions speak louder than words.
The Prepare Out Loud movement is a shift in thinking. It’s a change in the way we behave. It’s about creating a culture of preparedness. Tens of thousands of people in the Pacific Northwest have already quietly started gathering supplies like food and water and creating family emergency plans. Now is the time for all of us to join the preparedness movement, not quietly, but out loud. To Prepare Out Loud means taking simple steps to prepare yourself and your family for a disaster and sharing how you’re preparing with others. Sharing is key because peer influence - the influence that you have within your social network - is key to changing a person's actual behavior. I quit smoking ten years ago, not because I suddenly realized that it was bad for me, but because I saw my friends begin to quit smoking. Similarly, most of us know that a Cascadia earthquake is a tremendous risk, but we aren’t talking about what we are doing to prepare for it and we aren’t able to see what our friends and neighbors are doing to prepare. We need to invite private preparedness actions into the public dialogue. Things like securing your water heater, gathering food and water, stockpiling medication and formulating a family emergency plan are important preparedness actions that you may already be doing, but you will only influence your community if people know you are doing these things.
Preparing for an earthquake is scary. It's only at the moment that you choose to prepare that you accept how vulnerable we all are. When my wife and I began creating our family plan, tears were shed over the kitchen table. But once we began implementing our plans and putting supplies in place, we began to feel better. Chey, who recently attended a Prepare Out Loud presentation, tells a similar story about the beginning of her preparedness journey.
I’m completely terrified now, but have already started taking the steps necessary to prepare. Strangely enough, when I went to the store to stock up on water last night the shelves were bare. I was pretty sure that other people knew something I didn’t know. And then I took a deep breath.
I also talked with my 4-year-old last night about the information and informed her that I was going to be preparing emergency kits to prepare for the earthquake. Her eyes got big, and I told her “Sweetheart, it might never happen in your lifetime. We just don’t know. But the best way to stay safe…”
And she finished my sentence herself with “is to be prepared!” I was floored.