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Laurie Dingler | Judicial limits should not prevent prep for Great Cascadia earthquake – The Times-Standard

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There are many different moving parts to building resilient societies. There are many private and public entities, the built environment and infrastructure, and diverse economic interests. There are cultural and socio-economic issues, and everyone has their own priorities. Day-to-day priorities for jobs, deadlines, childcare, or elder care make it easy to push planning for events that don’t seem imminent.

Every individual, family, company or other organization has a role in resilience — to reduce our risk, know what to do during a shakedown, and have supplies on our own for weeks if necessary. But the government also has important responsibilities. It’s very hard to prepare for something you don’t know much about. When the Cascadia earthquake occurs, what is the Earth’s shaking pattern and how far can a tsunami penetrate? How will roads, buildings and infrastructure be affected? It is not possible to come up with exact answers, but with geophysical studies and engineering modeling, a general picture can be drawn.

The role of government in risk assessment is to build and sustain strong research capabilities in both public and academic institutions, to learn from similar events elsewhere and to share ideas freely. Let’s use the Cascadia earthquake as an example. It is the worst event for our region and certainly on the top five list of potentially catastrophic natural disasters in the United States in terms of scale, long-term impact and damage.

We have two government agencies working hard to assess Cascadia’s risk. The USGS is focusing on the earthquake shaking aspect and has developed ShakeMaps that show the likely extent and pattern of ground motion we could see. The responsibility for ocean hazards rests with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and over the past three decades the agency has had better ocean depth data and improved numerical models.

It is not unusual for governments to divide solid land and ocean hazards between different agencies. I have worked in Peru, Chile and New Zealand which have similarly delegated these responsibilities. Most of the time it works fine. The vast majority of earthquake effects are related to vibration and most marine hazards do not involve earthquakes. But large subduction zone earthquakes such as Cascadia blur these lines.

The USGS routinely releases loss estimates after earthquakes. These estimates are based on population, building types, and vibration strength. Usually available within 30 minutes, it provides a quick picture of the scale of impacts and highlights areas likely to need response and relief efforts. These estimates only cover the effects of the shaking and the effects of the USGS tsunami are not included. It is certainly possible to make similar loss estimates for tsunamis, but this is within the purview of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and at present, it has not been included.

Earthquake early warning is another area in which more integration between the USGS and NOAA could be beneficial. If you were in Humboldt County and signed up for MyShake last December, you likely got an alert on your phone a few seconds before or when you started feeling shaken. It’s great to have a head to put your head down and under the table before the shake arrives. But there was nothing in this tsunami warning. The December 20 earthquake was not large enough to cause a tsunami and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Tsunami Warning Center released that information about 4 minutes after the earthquake. It would have been nice to have this information fed to your cell phone after we received the vibration alert.

This is not a problem in Japan where both earthquakes and tsunamis at the Japan Meteorological Agency are under the same roof. Earthquake alert and tsunami forecast are posted on the same platform and tsunami evacuation advice is provided as well as Drop, Cover, Hold On.

And the tsunami/vibration gap found its way into awareness as well. I have been fortunate to have received funding through both the NOAA Tsunami Program, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), the Seismic Risk Reduction Program and until recently, I was able to incorporate vibration and tsunami risks into our products. But there seems to be a new barrier this year. I have been told that FEMA funding cannot be used in a tsunami. This is why you won’t hear a tsunami mentioned in Mendocino’s new three-link video even though the small tsunami created by the 1992 earthquake was one of the most important lessons.

I’m currently in a small row over FEMA’s funding for next year. We hope to update Living on Shaky Ground to include new earthquake early warning and tsunami warning messages. They reject any mention of tsunamis in the project, and I have to bend over backwards to prove that we are going to use other money for the magazine’s four tsunami pages. I’m sure NOAA and USGS fully understand the earthquake/tsunami overlap, but other bureaucracies are building what I consider an artificial and potentially harmful barrier.

Other jurisdictional boundaries can stand in the way of flexibility. Another responsibility of FEMA is to host disaster response exercises. The larger the event, the greater the complexity of response, relief, and recovery. Two weeks ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conducted an exercise to exercise the government’s response to a major earthquake and tsunami in the Cascadia subduction zone. The exercise, called Cascadia Rising22, brought emergency managers, planners and government officials together to discuss operational activities, logistics, resource management, and communications for response operations.

Described as a “comprehensive exercise”, unfortunately it was not. It included only FEMA participants in Area X who had left California. California is in FEMA IX as are the Hawaii and Pacific Territories, all of which will be affected by the Cascadia earthquake/tsunami.

California emergency officials are on top of this and are banging on the strings. This November FEMA IX will be holding the Cascadia exercise and when the planning for Cascadia28 begins, I’m tipping the scales that we’ll be included.

Laurie Dingler is Cal Poly Humboldt Professor Emeritus of Geology and an expert in tsunami and earthquake hazards. Questions or comments about this column, or want a free copy of Preparedness magazine “Living on Shaken Earth”? Leave a message at 707-826-6019 or email [email protected]

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