I’VE BEEN WRITING about earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest for more than 25 years, spanning a remarkable era of discovery as scientists uncovered the history of monster earthquakes on the Cascadia subduction zone. They also found dozens of previously unknown faults, including one that runs through Seattle.
Yet state leaders still don’t seem to take the threat seriously, a topic of this week’s cover story.
Washington ranks second to California in seismic risk — higher than Oregon, which has accomplished far more in terms of preparedness. We’re vulnerable not only to the “Big One” and shallow fault quakes, but also to jolts, like the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, that originate deep underground. When my colleague Daniel Gilbert ran the numbers in 2016, he estimated that 386,000 kids in the state live in quake-prone areas and attend schools that were built before statewide construction codes were adopted. About 31,000 kids attend schools in or near tsunami zones, Gilbert found. Only a single school is designed to withstand tsunamis.
There’s a story I can’t get out of my mind when I think about Washington’s vulnerable kids. It happened in 2011, when Japan was struck by the most powerful earthquake and tsunami in its history.
Schools didn’t crumble, because earthquake-resilient construction is a given in Japan. At one small elementary campus near the Tohoku coast, the teachers and students took cover while the ground shook, then mustered outside. But confusion ensued about how to escape the tsunami.
Suddenly, the massive surge of water arrived, and it was too late. Only one teacher and four of 78 kids escaped, by scrambling up a nearby hill. In the aftermath, one mother learned to operate a backhoe to keep looking for her daughter’s body after official searches were suspended.
It wasn’t a failure of engineering, like many Washington schools face. But the tragedy at Okawa Elementary School underscores the abiding pain when children are lost, especially if it could have been prevented.
After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake killed more than 5,000 students, parents’ fury over corrupt building practices was so intense, the Chinese government launched a crackdown to silence them.
Parents of children killed at Okawa in Japan sued the district over its bungled response and won $15 million. But the victory was hollow, one father told journalists.
“I wish I could go back to that day and save my son,” he said. “I wish I could have at least died with him.”