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It’s when, not if, the Pacific Northwest is due for a major seismic disaster; scientists say there’s a 37 percent chance one could strike in the next 50 years. FEMA estimates such an earthquake and resulting tsunami could kill thousands and leave a million more homeless. But some concerned coastal communities are working to make sure they’re ready when it hits. William Brangham reports.
It's a question of when, not if, a major seismic disaster will strike the Pacific Northwest. Scientists put the odds of a big earthquake and tsunami occurring within the next 50 years at 37 percent.
So, what are coastal communities doing to prepare and to make sure that they are resilient in the face of an extreme event?
"NewsHour" correspondent William Brangham decided to find out.
I'm standing on the coast of Washington. This is the very edge of the continental United States. And just a few miles out in the Pacific Ocean is considered one of the most dangerous seismic faults in all of North America.
Scientists believe if that fault were to rupture, it could devastate much of the Pacific Northwest. The fault is known as the Cascadia subduction zone, where two tectonic plates meet underneath the Pacific Ocean. This fault line stretches 700 miles along the coast.
KEN MURPHY, Regional Administrator, FEMA:
Earthquakes have no season. It's earthquake season every day.
Ken Murphy is FEMA's regional administrator. He oversees emergency operations for the Northwest region. He says if this whole fault were to rupture, not only would there be a catastrophic earthquake, but that quake would then trigger an enormous tsunami, which would crash into the Pacific Northwest minutes later.
You roughly have about 140,000 square miles of communities and land and people up and down Washington, Oregon, and Northern California.
Major cities like Seattle, Vancouver and Portland could be seriously damaged. FEMA estimates that in an 8- or 9-magnitude quake, nearly 13,000 people could be killed, with another 20,000 injured. A million people would be made homeless.
And to some, these are conservative estimates.
It's not just FEMA, but how we as a nation are going to respond to this, because it's really going to take everybody's efforts.
This threat has people across the Northwest worried, no more so than in coastal Washington, towns like Westport, Ocean Shores, Ocosta. Chuck Wallace is an emergency manager for this county.
CHUCK WALLACE, Grays Harbor Emergency Management:
If you're in an inundation zone or close to the coast, if you feel an earthquake, you have to suspect that a tsunami could be following. And if there is one, if they are coming, we would have anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes along the coast to move to higher ground.
And so the town of Ocosta, with just a few thousand residents, is now building this, a large tsunami evacuation shelter here on top of its public school. It's the first of its kind in North America.
PAULA AKERLUND, Superintendent, Ocosta School District:
Well, right now we're in the stair tower. This is after the earthquake. We're evacuating to the rooftop for the tsunami evacuation.
So there's four stairwells like this one?
Paula Akerlund is the school superintendent for the district, and she was instrumental in getting this shelter built. Akerlund said they started discussing this shelter four years ago. In an ominous coincidence, hours later, the massive tsunami hit Japan.
The whole world watched as waves destroyed buildings and roads and entire towns in just a matter of minutes.
We learned a lot about what to do in this building from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. So, one of the things that we knew from Japan is that some buildings were overtopped.
Water coming up over the roof.
Yes. And so we tried to make the walls here high enough so that that would no happen. And then, also, I think it will serve another purpose, because there will be children up here with us and they won't really see what's happening, I think, for awhile. I think that might be a good thing.
Oh, so the walls will protect them from watching their community.
Kind of protect them from watching.
Our whole focus is on the safety and welfare of the kids, and so we try to think about things like that.
And the kids in Ocosta have been absorbing some of this concern too. Listen to what we happened to hear in this sixth grade class.
Andrew, what are you reading?
I'm reading "Escaping the Giant Wave."
Oh, "Escaping the Giant Wave."
Several of us sitting here have been having tsunami dreams. And we're just taking it to mean that it's because it's in the news, not that it's any kind of premonition. Yes, not going to happen, just something because we talk about it and stuff. But tell me about the title. How does the title fit in with what you're reading so far?
The news truck blared out there was a tsunami coming at 5:30, and it was 5:20.
And was there actually a tsunami coming?
Yes. Goodness' sakes.
The highly reinforced structure they have built isn't just to protect the 620 students at the school. The roof can hold nearly 2,000 people, and officials say no one would be turned away in a disaster, and the shelter will be accessible 24/7 from this point forward.
The total cost? Just over $2 million. And get this: No state or federal money was used offered to build it. Locals had to vote on a bond specifically to raise their own taxes to build this, and this isn't a wealthy community.
I had no idea whether it would pass or not.
I told one of our teachers, if the bond passes, I will be doing a happy dance, and he told me it's going to pass by 70 percent. And it did, it did. And I was doing a little happy little dance, yes.
But how likely is it that this shelter will ever be needed? Skeptics can point out that there's no recorded history of a major quake and tsunami here, so what's the likelihood?
Well, the answer to that can be found in one of the great seismological detective stories, and it happened here on the Copalis River, about 40 miles north of Ocosta. I went up the river with local guide Dave Agner.
Do you know how tall these cedars would've been back in their day?
This is what's known as the Ghost Forest. These dead cedar trees hold a crucial clue to the very real danger facing the Pacific Northwest.
DAVE AGNER, River Guide:
William, straight ahead at 12:00. You see that tree that is partially in the river and partially on the land?
For years, it was thought these trees had died over time, decades apart. But in the late 1980s, two scientists found evidence that these trees all died simultaneously, when the ground beneath them plunged downwards several feet, which is often what occurs in subduction zone earthquakes.
They found strong evidence of a major quake 300 years ago, but had it also triggered a tsunami? A few years later, a Japanese scientist proved that it had. He was looking through centuries-old records trying to understand a mysterious tsunami that hit Japan in 1700. When he saw the data from Washington's Ghost Forest, he realized they were the exact same event.
That quake off Washington's coast sent a tsunami that not only flooded the Pacific Northwest, but also traveled 5,000 miles across the ocean and hit Japan.
There was evidence of a massive one in 1700, and the Japanese kept fantastic records. The shoguns required very, very good record-keeping, or you could lose your life if you promised a certain crop and it didn't come in.
Just a few miles from the Ghost Forest, another community is trying to grapple with this looming threat in an even more dramatic fashion. The Quinault Indian Nation has lived along this coast for centuries.
Fawn Sharp is their president.
FAWN SHARP, President, Quinault Indian Nation:
If you look behind me, you will see where our treaty was negotiated in 1855 at the mouth of the Quinault River, where the Quinault River meets the ocean. And it's 150 years ago. Nobody at that time ever anticipated that this entire central part of our community would ever be underwater.
This aerial rendering of their village shows how, in the event of a quake and tsunami, the entire area would be inundated with water. So, they're going to move the whole village up the hill to this spot. But moving an entire village is not easy.
These are major facilities. This is a brand-new courthouse, fairly new.
And that's going to have to be moved?
And that's going to have to be moved. Our community center, our central gathering place will have to obviously be moved.
That's a lot of structures.
Yes. Our membership sees the exciting opportunity of creating a new village and what that might look like, but so many of our memories are here in this village, and the thought of it being underwater, you know, there's a lot of trauma to that prospect that a very sacred site could no longer exist.
The Quinault hope to have the entire village moved to higher ground within the next five years.
Back in Ocosta, the tsunami shelter is just getting its finishing touches. Officials say, if a quake hit tomorrow, the shelter's ready to hold anyone who can get here.
Emergency manager Chuck Wallace says this building, and how it got built, is a model of what a community can do.
You know, you sit back and they always say, well, government did this, government did that. No, the people did this.
This very small community, very self-reliant community takes care of each other. People here were willing to increase their tax dollars to build this facility for their kids and their grandchildren. So, I think that that's a remarkable thing.
They hope to have a ribbon-cutting for the shelter in June.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham along the Washington coast.
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