The Big-Shake, Big-Wave Theory
See how a megaquake would shake out in the Pacific Northwest
Six months after the megaquake and tsunami, the official death toll stands at 7,241. More than 3,200 were killed in or around Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver. Many died when older houses collapsed. Others were killed by falling objects or died in fires. A number succumbed to heart attacks, and 679 were killed by the tsunami.
That’s far fewer than the tens of thousands who died in the Japanese tsunami of 2011. The difference isn’t attributable to better planning, stronger buildings, or quicker evacuations. It’s simply a function of population. Millions of people live on the coast of Japan, whereas the Washington and Oregon coasts are barely inhabited. There are no nuclear power plants along the coast of either state.
State and federal officials wrestle with the question of rebuilding Ocean Shores. In the end, the town is abandoned to the sea. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration partners with the Environmental Protection Agency to remove hundreds of fuel-oil tanks and other hazardous material to prevent leaching into the ocean.
By its one-year anniversary, the event has become known as the Great Cascadia Earthquake. It was the most powerful earthquake known to have hit the continental United States, and one of the three most powerful earthquakes since modern record-keeping began. It triggered tsunami surges of up to 51 feet in Ocean Shores, Seaside, Cannon Beach, Newport, and other coastal towns and traveled up to six miles inland. In addition to the deaths, FEMA confirmed 27,567 injured and 135 people missing across 37 counties, as well as more than 42,500 buildings damaged or destroyed. One dam on the Columbia River came close to collapse. Around 3.5 million households in the Pacific Northwest were left without electricity, and one million without water. Estimates placed insured losses from the earthquake alone at $5.5 billion to $14.6 billion. The overall cost could exceed $30 billion, making it one of the most expensive natural disasters in American history.
The earthquake moved North America 57 feet west and shifted the earth on its axis by estimates of between 8 and 20 inches.
The Great Cascadia Earthquake also left a number of people jobless, including Patrick Corcoran. That didn’t last long, though. Within six months, he is running FEMA’s statewide recovery effort. People on the coast recognize him now and then from his tsunami-preparedness work before the disaster. And they thank him.
“All those years,” he’d tell people, “I kind of felt like the boy who cried wolf. But what people don’t remember is how the story turned out. In the end, there really was a wolf.”