The Big-Shake, Big-Wave Theory
See how a megaquake would shake out in the Pacific Northwest
PITY POOR CASSANDRA, blessed by Apollo with the power of prophecy, cursed with the fate of disbelief. She tells the people what’s coming. She suffers their laughter, absorbs their scorn. Then she watches her prediction come true. Yeah, you told us so, they’ll say as they bury the dead. Congratulations, jerk.
Patrick Corcoran feels her pain. It’s his job. Every day, he rises at dawn and goes out into the world to tell people to prepare to meet their doom. Or, rather, to prepare to escape it.
Corcoran is a professional geographer in Astoria, Oregon, a misty fishing port where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. He’s a high-energy guy, 50, with a little Billy Bob Thornton to his look. Loves his job and loves his coffee. Drives around in his Toyota Tacoma all day with an 11.5-foot-long Takayama paddleboard strapped to the rack. He’s a coastal natural-hazards specialist with Oregon Sea Grant, a marine version of an agricultural extension service affiliated with Oregon State University. Corcoran prophesies earthquakes and tsunamis five days a week.
“It breaks my heart to go out and tell people, ‘Hey, you know that place your grandparents immigrated to, the place you call home, that seaside cottage? Well, it turns out to be a high-risk disaster zone. Yeah. We get a massive earthquake every 300 to 500 years around here, and we’re due. They’re super bad. When it comes, it’s a monster. A full-rip nine.’ ”
By “full-rip nine” Corcoran means a magnitude-9.0 earthquake, the kind of massive offshore temblor that triggered the tsunami that killed 28,050 people in Japan on March 11, 2011. Geologists call them megaquakes. Geologists also call the Northwest coast of North America—from Vancouver Island down to Northern California—one of the likeliest next victims.
“When that earthquake hits, it’s going to shake for a long time,” says Corcoran. “Three to five minutes or more. You’re going to feel lucky to survive. Then guess what. You rode out the quake? Congratulations. Now you have 15 minutes to get above 50 feet of elevation. Fifteen minutes. You’re elderly and not very mobile? Sorry. Your condition does not change the geologic facts. It’s called a tsunami. The water’s coming. It can’t be stopped. Don’t ask Jesus to save you. Be your own Jesus.”
This is the prophecy that Corcoran offers to school groups, Rotary Clubs, town councils, and first responders up and down the Oregon coast. In Newport, Coos Bay, Seaside, Cannon Beach, Gearhart, Waldport, and Bandon, the people have heard his rap. And how do they respond?
“People are like”—he sticks his fingers in his ears—“Na-na-na-na-na-na-na! Can’t hear you!” He shrugs. “It’s human nature. People don’t like to get bad news.”