Senator: Feds need to better prepare for massive Pacific quake

Senator: Feds need to better prepare for massive Pacific quake
© Greg Nash

Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellReal relief from high gas prices GOP resistance to Biden FCC nominee could endanger board's Democratic majority Scott says he will block nominees until Biden officials testify on supply chain crisis MORE (D-Wash.) said Thursday the federal government needed to do more to prepare for a massive earthquake in the Pacific Northwest. 

Local officials and geologists have warned about the potential for a large and devastating earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone, a fault line that runs along the West Coast between Vancouver and northern California. 

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During a Thursday Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee hearing, Cantwell pointed to the response she received following a lengthy piece by The New Yorker last year outlining the massive damage such a quake would bring and how unprepared local governments are to cope with it. 

“That’s the most I’ve heard from my constituents, from people across the country, people I grew up with, people in Europe, everybody saying: Have you read this?” Cantwell said. “I don’t even know if people here in our nation’s capital have our minds wrapped around this.” 

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials told the magazine an earthquake could destroy up to 1 million buildings in the region, setting off landslides along the West Coast. 

The fault line is far enough off the shoreline that a massive earthquake there could trigger a tsunami so large the regional FEMA director said, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.” 

An earthquake early-warning system could help mitigate some of those dangers, but the region has no such system. Studies have shown the subduction zone experiences an earthquake about once every 243 years, but it’s been more than 315 years since the most recent one there.  

Suzette Kimball, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, told the committee that researchers are working to understand the mechanisms that could go into such a large earthquake, which she said could be the size of the quake that devastated Japan in 2010.

“A more important aspect now … is to make sure that individuals understand the true probability of an event and what to do should that type of event occur,” she said, noting upcoming local drills on tsunami and earthquake preparedness.  

Cantwell said government agencies needed to better “knit together” a response plan for such a quake. She warned of local and county officials in Washington state hearing from federal scientists and struggling to come up with earthquake mitigation plans for their communities. 

“I think we need to keep doing more work to make these plans a reality at the federal level,” she said.  

“The size that people are talking about, the map that they show … basically one of the largest economies in the world, the West Coast economy, will be greatly impacted by this. So I think we want to keep knitting it together.”