FROM THE ARCHIVES: Puget Sound under pressure
Last updated 6/14/2020 at 3:13pm
The Beacon is occasionally republishing stories we think will be of interest to readers. Here's one on the big earthquake coming for the Pacific Northwest. There's also a scary fault close by. It was published in May 2017.
In 2015, from his government office in Snohomish County, Kenneth Murphy made the pronouncement that woke up the Pacific Northwest from its earthquake-denial slumber.
“Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast,” he told New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz in an article titled “The Really Big One.” Schulz’s eye-opening essay – which won a Pulitzer Prize – centered on the bogeyman off the Washington-Oregon coast: the Cascadia Subduction Zone.
The 700-mile megathrust fault stretches from northern Vancouver Island south to Cape Mendocino, California. It’s the only type of fault that can unleash earthquakes with a magnitude of 9.0 and higher, thanks to the slow grinding of tectonic plates and the eventual release of one as it slips under the other, unleashing a mind-blowing amount of energy that can last for more than five minutes.
It happened in Japan in 2011, killing more than 22,000 people. It happened in Indonesia in 2004, killing more than 250,000. It happened in Alaska in 1964, killing more than 130.
All three produced deadly tsunamis.
More than 30 years ago, geologists and seismologists in the U.S. and Japan – using field research and studying meticulously kept records spanning centuries in Japan – determined that Cascadia’s last big rip occurred in 1700. Jan. 26, to be exact. It unleashed tsunamis on both Pacific Northwest and Japanese coasts.
Today, there is an increased recognition of Cascadia Subduction Zone’s not-when-but-if inevitability. Scientists say it’s ruptured 41 times over the past 10,000 years, an average of once every 243 years.
The math is not on our side.
But as scary as the image of a 9.0 earthquake shaking the Pacific Northwest and tsunamis swamping coastlines is, there is another fault that could wreak serious damage. It’s not capable of producing a 9.0, scientists say, but it doesn’t need to.
And it just so happens the fault runs between Edmonds and Mukilteo.
Edmonds’ emergency chief
Kenneth Murphy no longer is director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Region 10 office on 228th Street SW in Bothell, which supports residents and first-responders in Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Idaho. The Obama appointee lost his job when President Trump took office.
But Lee Champagne, a civil-service employee and chief of FEMA’s Mobile Emergency Response Support (MERS), still has his. His department provides rapid response, emergency notification, command and control, communications, transportation and logistics to support federal disaster response and recovery operations.
You may have seen Champagne around town. He lives in Edmonds’ Point Edwards condominiums and was keynote speaker in March at North Sound Church’s “Ready Sunday” event to promote emergency preparedness.
He’s a member of the new Edmonds Emergency Preparation Association, and participated in last year’s “Cascadia Rising” exercise, where more than 20,000 participants from Washington, California and Oregon, in partnership with FEMA, gathered for an earthquake-preparedness exercise.
In Edmonds, attendees included Mayor Dave Earling, Police Chief Al Compaan, Public Works Director Phil Williams and City Engineer Rob English.
While Champagne is justifiably concerned about spreading the word of Cascadia Subduction Zone’s devastating potential, he wants Edmonds and Puget Sound residents to understand our local danger: the South Whidbey Island Fault (SWIF).
The fault runs from just east of Victoria, eastward through Whidbey Island near Clinton, just south of Mukilteo and out to Woodinville and the Cascade Mountains. It is capable of generating up to a 7.4 earthquake. The 2001 Nisqually quake was a 6.8.
Champagne, who has held his position for 10 years this June, recently invited me to his office on FEMA’s sprawling Bothell site. I entered through a secure checkpoint and greeted him outside his office building, where he punched in a key code and swiped a card to allow entry through two secure doors.
Inside, he spread maps and reports on his desk and spoke about the South Whidbey Island fault.
“This fault has not had a major rupture for almost 1,000 years,” said Champagne, who just turned 70. “It’s only during the last 50-60 years that we’ve been actively looking at it.”
It’s a shallow, crustal fault, similar to the Seattle Fault, another scary gash in the earth that unleashed a 7.4 quake 1,100 years ago. “They don’t happen nearly as often as subduction zone quakes,” Champagne said, “but can cause more significant damage near the source, and also could generate tsunamis in Puget Sound.”
He added that faults like the South Whidbey and Seattle occur, on average, every 600 to 1,000 years. That means both, like the Cascadia Fault, are overdue.
So, as Champagne points out, Edmonds could be walloped from faults directly to the north and south. As the 2001 Nisqually earthquake showed it ruptured deep below the earth’s surface and lost energy as it reached the surface the most vulnerable structures are those not built to code.
Recall the damage to Seattle’s oldest neighborhood, Pioneer Square.
Deep earthquakes like the Nisqually produce few or no aftershocks, Champagne said. But a crustal fault capable of producing a 7.4 quake would likely be followed by many aftershocks.
Ready to communicate
Champagne leads the way through FEMA’s corridors, stopping to chat with co-workers and introducing me to those responsible for coordinating federal and local responses to whatever natural and manmade disasters may come our way.
People listen to what Champagne has to say.
Before arriving at FEMA, the retired Navy captain served as a federal coordinating officer, participating in numerous presidentially declared major disasters – including floods, tornadoes, severe storms and hurricanes – in Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Idaho, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Florida, Virginia and Louisiana.
In 2005, the New Orleans native was a deputy to Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen for federal Katrina and Rita hurricane disaster response efforts. He remained until mid-2007 to help coordinate post-Katrina recovery and preparedness efforts.
He also participated in the 2003 Hurricane Isabel response in Virginia and the 2004 Hurricane Charlie disaster response in Florida, and assisted in other national-level disaster, anti-terrorist and pandemic-flu exercising and planning.
As Champagne and I make our way through a cavernous garage filled with trucks, radars, portables and all types of emergency gear (no cameras allowed), he points to a ramp leading to a super-guarded room: the MERS Operations Center.
After we file through more checkpoints – a higher security clearance is required here – he opens the door to a room filled with TVs, radios and other communications equipment. Workers hunch over computers. It’s like a mini-version of the control room in “War Games.”
“This is where we keep track of situational awareness across the Pacific Northwest,” Champagne said, “in case of any type of disaster. We can call in a response and gather any or all personnel needed.”
The workers greet us and explain a little about what they do, but seem relieved when we wave goodbye.
Champagne then takes me outside to a parking lot and into a custom-made mobile command post vehicle, all knobs and radios and monitors and swivel chairs. It’s all pretty cool, but if the Cascadia Subduction Zone heaves, your life may depend on these bad boys, whose job it is to coordinate communication with those in the field.
With telephone lines down and cellphones inoperable, the vehicles would still be able to send life-saving messages.
“The first casualty is communications,” Champagne said. “If you can’t communicate, you can’t coordinate. It’s called situational awareness.”
Local, federal action
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who lives in Edmonds when not in Washington, D.C., sponsored tsunami detection and warning legislation signed by President Trump on April 18.
Cantwell’s bill was included as an amendment to the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017. Its intent is to strengthen the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s tsunami warning system and advance new research related to improving tsunami detection, forecasting, notification and emergency response.
“Thousands of people in Washington state live in tsunami danger zones,” Cantwell said. “These communities work hard to prepare for emergencies, but they can’t do it all on their own. This bill helps us protect coastal communities by boosting our emergency warning infrastructure, helping fund emergency management and determining which areas need more preparation.”
Cantwell has been a leader in improving tsunami preparedness in the Pacific Northwest. In 2006, she co-authored and championed the Tsunami Warning and Education Act, which enabled Washington state to improve tsunami evacuation routes, update maps and increase the number of warning buoys worldwide.
Cantwell also secured funding to purchase additional warning sirens for coastal areas in Washington state.
Although that’s good news, the message from Olympia isn’t as encouraging.
Earlier this month, Gov. Jay Inslee passed a bill that makes quake drills for coastal schools and yearly earthquake drills for all schools – as mandated by the state Seismic Safety Committee – optional. The committee tried to make the drills mandatory.
(The Edmonds School District states that its schools should conduct a minimum of two earthquake drills each school year.)
Also in Olympia, legislation that would require the seismic safety of school buildings did not get a hearing.
And although experts say laws must be passed requiring that older buildings in the state be retrofitted to allow them a chance against strong earthquakes, no cities – including Edmonds – have acted on this.
“The seismic resistance of new buildings is currently regulated by the International Building Code, which has been adopted formally by the state of Washington as well as the city of Edmonds,” said Leif Bjorback, a building official with the city.
“This code has rigorous standards that must be met for seismic resistance. Alterations to existing buildings are regulated by the International Existing Building Code, which is closely related to the IBC. The requirements for structural upgrades to these buildings depend on the level of alterations proposed for a given project.
“Although the city has issued building permits in the past for voluntary seismic upgrades for both commercial and residential structures, we currently do not have a documented inventory of existing buildings and their earthquake readiness.”
Several of Edmonds’ historic buildings on Main Street, such as the Beeson and Schumacher buildings, are more than 100 years old.
What about local schools? Edmonds School District spokeswoman Debbie Joyce Jakala said that Westgate, Seaview, Sherwood and Woodway elementary schools have all been retrofitted.
Jakala said Edmonds-Woodway High School, Chase Lake Elementary and Maplewood Parent Co-Op were “good to go” after rebuilds in 1999, 2000 and 2002, respectively. The Woodway campus was retrofitted in the early 2000s. College Place Middle School has also been retrofitted.
The retrofits at these schools, and others across the district that were not new, were funded by a 2004 voter-approved technology/capital construction levy and FEMA grants.
The new Madrona K-8 is scheduled to open in fall 2018, and Meadowdale High also is “good to go,” Jakala said.
Those in the path of hurricanes and tornados can often get advance warning. What about those in earthquake zones?
Last month, the U.S. Geological Survey, along with university, state and private-sector partners, unveiled an earthquake early warning system called ShakeAlert.
It extends the ShakeAlert production prototype rolled out in California in 2016 to Washington and Oregon, creating a fully integrated system for the West Coast that can support pilot uses of alerts.
With ShakeAlert, timely warnings of an earthquake could provide several seconds and, in favorable cases, up to a minute or two before the arrival of damaging shaking.
The reasoning is that even a few seconds can allow time to take protective action, such as taking cover in safe locations, slowing trains, stopping elevators and opening doors at the nearest floor, or automatically stopping critical processes to lessen damage or to enhance public safety.
The system does not yet support public warnings, but this version allows selected early adopters to develop pilot programs that demonstrate the system’s utility and develop technologies that pave the way for broader use.
Recent quakes felt in Edmonds
Earthquakes happen every day in the Pacific Northwest; the vast majority are too small to be felt.
But Puget Sound – and Edmonds – did receive some jolts on May 11 when a swarm of quakes registering between 2.6 and 3.6 struck an area between Bremerton and Bainbridge Island, with most occurring directly under the path taken by the Seattle-Bremerton ferry. In addition, one originated about four miles off the west coast of Whidbey Island near Freeland.
On the Beacon’s Facebook page, several people replied to a query asking if they felt the quakes locally.
“I felt and heard it!” Cheri Neil wrote. “I was home with a contractor. We both looked at each other and said, ‘What was that?’ It was very quick. I am near Perrinville.”
Michelle Smith Reitan said she felt a quick jolt at the Edmonds Senior Center. “I knew it wasn't the building shaking from a truck driving by.”
Maurine Jeude felt a quick shake in Westgate, while Denise Palugya Alvarado “felt a quick, two-second hard jerk that rocked my desk chair, over by Eighth and Cedar.” Nearby, Elaine Reitan felt a quick bang at Eighth and Fir.
Julie Boies Tobiassen said she felt shaking at her Grounded Espresso stand in Firdale. “We thought a car hit the building for a second,” she wrote.
And Nancy Hadaller said she was entering her nail shop, Nancy’s Nails on Fifth Avenue South, when she heard a crash. “When I got inside, they asked if I felt something.”
You just never know
Lee Champagne said it’s difficult to judge if the recent spate of quakes foretell of something scarier to come. Could it mean the South Whidbey Island Fault could awaken from its long slumber?
“It could well be an indicator, and it could not. It’s so hard to tell for sure. No one knows when a disaster will happen. Government agencies have plans and will respond to all disasters, including earthquake and train derailments. But having a community well-informed of what dangers may lie ahead and taking precautions is a big step towards a better community response and recovery.”
Champagne is well aware of the disaster that could happen – that will happen.
“I was president of the board of directors at Point Edwards for a couple of years,” he said. “Our buildings weren’t insured for earthquakes initially, but are now. We have $80 million worth of buildings here. And some of them are on the side of the hill. You may one day find them down at Anthony’s or Arnies.”