Last week was full of disastrous anniversaries: Most notably, 108 years ago the United States was struck by its last truly catastrophic earthquake.
Meanwhile, an unsettling series of earthquakes seems to be working its way up from South America: Chile had an 8.2 April Fools Day. Nicaragua had a pair of magnitude-six shakers last week. And of course Mexico woke up Friday to a 7.2 that did surprisingly little damage
And it’s not just that. Last month California’s North Coast got off easy from a 6.9, and a smaller but substantial 5.1 rattled Los Angeles more recently. A trio of tremblors struck off the coast of British Columbia in recent weeks.
Of course there is no clear link between all these events. But at the same time, when a fault gives way at one point, the stress moves along the fault to places that haven’t had a release lately. In any case, California is probably about due for a catastrophic quake.
But the Oregon coast is overdue for something much worse, the stuff of fiction. And so I’m going to write some fiction about it, or something like it. But while it will be exploratory fiction, I also want it to have an element of fact based on real-world projections, real-world models and real-world experiences.
Oregon’s Inevitable Future
Recently the New York Times published a story about empty “promises of preparedness.” It referred to a report called The Oregon Resilience Plan. This absolutely chilling document illuminates a state that is dramatically underprepared for an inevitable and devastating earthquake; recovery of basic road access, tap water and sewage, electricity and telecommunications will be measured by months and years in some places.
Every 240 years on average – most recently in 1700, so long overdue now – the earth’s crust gives way somewhere offshore, resulting in shaking in excess of 9.0 on the Richter scale as well as devastating tsunamis.
This catastrophe could be rather similar to the 2011 Tohoku quake and tsunami that devastated Japan, but with a key difference: While Japan is highly prepared, Oregon is highly unprepared. Much of Oregon’s key infrastructure was built without much attention to seismic safety, and most of it was built before the danger of the Cascadia Subduction Zone was fully understood.
Now, the best the “Resilience Plan” can do is seek an acceptable level of resilience in 50 years – and of course to hope that the quake doesn’t happen sooner than that.
But if the quake does comes soon, damage is expected to be so severe that U.S. 101 and routes to the coast will be impassible. Even Interstate 5 will be out of commission for at least a few weeks, leaving U.S. 97 – parallel to the coast about 100 miles inland, on the eastern side of the Cascades – as the main north-south route and staging area for the recovery efforts. Spokane, Wash., Boise, Idaho and Redding, Calif. would be the main airports for ground access into an immense and rugged catastrophe zone where recovery of basic services will be measured in weeks and months.
When this quake hits, even if it isn’t the worst-case scenario, the Oregon Coast will be forever changed. Its tourism and retiree-based economy will collapse, at least temporarily. The report estimates that about ¾ of US 101 bridges will be out of commission – 56 collapsed and 42 heavily damaged – and it will be difficult to repair them because so many of the roads approaching the coast will also be severed in multiple places. The report estimates that it will take several years to get coastal access highways back up to even 60% of current capacity.
Similar damages (and repair timelines) are expected on the electrical, telecommunications, water and sewage systems. Essentially it will be months before any semblance of normalcy returns to the coast (but only weeks for Portland and the Willamette Valley), and years a return to anything near what exists now. Who knows what will be left of the small businesses serving tourists by that point? And for that matter, who knows what will be left of a solvent state government? The report uses “lost generation” to describe the long-term economic and social decline that is to be expected.
But it’s not clear that normalcy will ever return. In several places the report authors declined to predict recovery timelines for the tsunami zone. And on page 173 of the report is an offhand comment, a dry understatement that suggests that the overlapping systems damage might be so severe that it isn’t fixable even on the rather dire timelines described in the report:
The state’s main power transmission lines are expected to be down for 7-51 days. However, “This scenario assumes many ideal conditions (for example, that BPA employees and contractor resources are immediately available, all roads and bridges are passable, and sufficient fuel is available), which is optimistic.”
Optimism is not enough. We should expect at least something approaching the long-term damage to New Orleans that still lingers a decade later, or even the painfully-slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy that continues within sight of the gleaming towers of Wall Street. Lovely little out-of-the-way burgs like Astoria, Newport and Coos Bay are not going to get much help when Portland and Seattle are still digging out in the media spotlight. They’ll get even less help if this quake follows another disaster – say, a quake in California or another major hurricane strike. They’ll be on their own.
Consider that a month after the large but solitary landslide that devastated Oso, Wash., there is still no timeline for reopening that road. Consider what it would be like if that sort of damage occurs simultaneously in hundreds of locations.
It’s hard to imagine, but somehow I can’t resist. And I think that’s why I’m feeling called to write a work of fiction.
Our Potential Future
The Coastlands is a work that has been growing in me for years now. Every once in a while I’ll catch a glimpse of the future somewhere – a vibrant local economy peeking through the ruins like plants growing through cracks in the sidewalk.
The Coastlands will be somewhat apocalyptic, but not in the usual Hollywood sense of Mad Max, The Road or The Postman. I’m after a more nuanced world between dystopia and utopia, where people have begun to adjust to different circumstances in a whole range of ways. Some will be more or less effective, more or less authoritarian and more or less hopeful. An authoritarian (and yes, dystopian) core will remain of the United States, but its reach and control will be dramatically reduced. Some places will experience independence or abandonment, depending on one’s perspective.
I imagine that the Oregon Coast will become rather isolated in the Resilience Plan scenario, and those who remain there will have to adapt to a very different way of life. Thus, this very real and plausible hypothetical scenario in the (very real) report provides a thought exercise for how society might be reordered in the wake of disaster, as well as the inevitable longer-term unraveling of centralization. We also have a variety of models for community-based disaster recovery and grassroots organizing.
I think this sort of thinking is especially important for us in the West, because there are growing cracks in the façade that suggest we might see dramatic changes in our lifetimes. We face the end of our centralized social order, and we must be dreaming up what structures and practices will best help us make the transition to a new way of being, less dependent on Washington, on the global economy, on capitalist industry.
I believe that some form of change is inevitable and ultimately good. This change will be best if it happens sooner and on our own terms. So we must try to discern the beginnings of the change and move toward it rather than flee.
The Coastlands will be my own attempt at this discernment, which I hope will inspire others. I’ll start publishing in the coming days, in draft form at first, to get the ball rolling and gauge interest as I prepare to launch the full project – which is going to involve intersecting blogs from sometime in the not-so-distant future.