British Columbia’s experience with catastrophic flooding is a forewarning of future supply-chain issues following a Cascadia region subduction earthquake. Our neighbors to the north are struggling to reopen road, rail, pipelines and port facilities in order to get supplies moving again. Their troubles today pale in comparison with future challenges when there is a catastrophic earthquake.
Geologists have been good at discovering earthquake fault systems here in Washington state that we never imagined existed. It has only been 35 years since evidence of the Cascadia Subduction Zone was first documented. Since then we now know more about the potential size of the earthquake zone and magnitude of earthquakes that have historically impacted a region that extends from British Columbia, a thousand miles south, impacting the states of Washington and Oregon, down to and including Northern California.
Our challenge comes from the topography of Western Washington, being bounded by the Pacific Ocean and Puget Sound in the west and with the Cascade Mountains being a barrier to the east. Sandwiched in between is a narrow corridor of land that has very limited north-south road and rail lines and then only a few east-west mountain passes. We have also crammed more than half of Washington state’s population of 7 million people into this area.
A recent and extensive study of the disaster resilience of our roads and bridges has documented that many bridges in the region will take many months and even years to repair and replace following an earthquake. The lesson of the West Seattle Bridge is a harbinger of the types of transportation disruptions that will wrack the region for a very long time.
It is very easy to predict the supply-chain disruptions that will ensue following a subduction earthquake. Our system of “just in time” delivery of goods of all types will strangle the normal form and function of commerce. Panic buying as we recently have seen in British Columbia due to flooding is to be expected. This known inability to have an immediate source of water, food and other supplies drove Washington state to emulate Oregon in adopting the disaster preparedness message that you need to have two weeks of disaster supplies stored, and that is the minimum. The national standard of three-days of disaster preparedness does not apply to our seismic situation. Earthquakes are “come as you are” disasters. There is no rushing out to get supplies before the earthquake hits, like what you see in hurricane-prone areas of the nation.
Emergency managers in central Puget Sound understand what is possible and are doing their best to plan for the foreknown consequences of a major earthquake. Two major efforts are underway for an eight-county region. One is looking at where there will be islands of population that will not have access to food sources and knowing these preplanning potential distribution sites for supplies. A second project is examining how the Puget Sound waterway could serve as a super highway for the transportation of supplies to sustain people initially during the disaster response and then assist with moving supplies, equipment and people during the disaster-recovery phase.
While the above is all well and good, I can tell you that there is no way that emergency managers and governments can meet the needs of the general population when individually, the region is unprepared for a disaster. The needs are just too great, and the timeline to restore supplies is too long.
There is a phrase in emergency management called “lessons learned,” where we try to figure out how to prevent the issues we have seen in previous disasters. In reality, most of this documentation turns into “lessons observed” because people fail to act on the information they have. It is your individual choice, now, today, to decide if you are learning from the events in B.C. and preparing, or are just observing. Remember, the only thing separating you from our Canadian friends’ experiences is an earthquake.