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Originally published Tuesday, February 25, 2014 at 5:27 PM

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Guest: What our region has not learned from the Japan earthquake and tsunami

It’s time we give everyone the information they deserve to face the reality of living in an earthquake hot zone, writes guest columnist Timothy Melbourne.


Special to The Times

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AS the third anniversary of the Japan earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 approaches, we will undoubtedly see those images again of buildings, ships, homes and cars being swept away like discarded scraps. These are horrific reminders that a quake and tsunami of the same size — or greater — could strike here some day.

What did Japan’s disaster teach us? The fault that ruptured off Japan’s coast is a shorter version of the Cascadia subduction zone, which extends 600 miles along the Pacific coast with huge plates of earth competing with unfathomable power for dominance, driving some under and others on top.

The actual research for Washington state is incomplete at this time, but there will be a magnitude 9 earthquake in Cascadia in the future. We cannot predict the date, but more than enough elastic energy has built up since 1700, when the last earthquake of that magnitude occurred, to have one today.

In terms of being ready, Japan was the best on earth. That country accepts its seismic history and, in regard to preparation, is in a league of its own. Its leaders spend billions every year on earthquake and tsunami mitigation. They enforce stringent building codes and land-use zoning requirements so bridges and buildings sway instead of crumple. And they apply science and technology to their preparation and response.

Earthquake preparedness in the Pacific Northwest focuses instead on how to survive after an earthquake has already hit. Emergency-management experts recommend out-of-area contact cards and 72-hour comfort kits, eerily reminiscent of the nuclear drills of the 1950s calling all to “duck and cover.”

Japanese coastal communities were slammed by huge waves within minutes of the 2011 quake. That would happen here, too. Four million people live within 25 miles of the Cascadia fault. The land beneath them would slide 50 feet and produce a catastrophic jolt.

At Central Washington University, we use the global navigation satellite system and monitor data from 500 GPS stations we have placed in locations from Canada to California to learn where faults are under intensifying strains. The sensors sit atop structures such as the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the Howard Hanson Dam, all monitoring unexpected dips or quivers.

If the Pacific coast or Mount Rainier moves even a few centimeters, we see it within five seconds. We’re able to pinpoint some earthquakes more quickly and accurately than traditional seismometers. We can potentially issue warnings before destructive shaking hits cities and before tsunami waves slam our coastal shores.

With early warning systems in place, we could save lives at the epicenter, and alert people hundreds, even thousands, of miles away to brace for impact before it occurs.

Japan taught us how critical it is to provide the public with honest and forthright information about the real dangers of living in an earthquake hot zone.

Owners of unsafe infrastructure, be it low-lying beach homes on the Pacific coast or unreinforced brick buildings in downtown Seattle, should be required to upgrade or abandon their buildings, and to clearly state to all occupants that they live or work in unsafe conditions and would be a major quake’s first victims.

Japan taught us that we must commit to early warning systems and regular drills, all the while guarding against complacency. Communities with viable exit routes must be better prepared. Those living in places with no feasible safe exit deserve to be told they are rolling the dice for themselves and their children.

Schools in Grays Harbor County on Washington’s coast learned valuable lessons from Japan. Communities there, with no high ground to run to, passed a bond measure last year to replace a fragile elementary school with a building strong and tall enough for more than 1,000 people to take shelter from a tsunami. Remember the images of floating cars and toppled ships during the Japan disaster? Those videos were taken by people safely on top of structures like this.

Let’s learn from Japan’s tragic disaster and accept our seismic history. Let’s bring science and technology into our calculations of preparation and response.

It’s time we give everyone the information they deserve to face the reality of living in an earthquake hot zone. That way, we’ll have the greatest chance of recovery and the resilience we need to rebuild.

Timothy Melbourne is professor of seismology and tectonics at Central Washington University in Ellensburg and director of the Cascadia Hazards Institute.




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