It’s almost impossible to describe the anticipated consequences of a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake without sounding like you’re being interviewed by the producers of “Doomsday Preppers.”
But Steve Eberlein can pull it off because, along with considerable science and a terrifying Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story that ran in the New Yorker in July 2015, the Klamath Falls native who will be leading an American Red Cross presentation on the subject Tuesday in Ashland has personal experience on his side.
Twelve years ago, in 2004, Eberlein and his wife were working in Sri Lanka — she as an international aid worker, he as a Spanish and geography teacher — when an underwater earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale shook the ground under the Indian Ocean, triggering 90-foot tall waves and a tsunami that devastated the island country in south Asia along with many of its neighbors. The Eberleins survived thanks to their fortunate location — fatalities were reported only one mile to the north and south, he said — but many others were not so lucky.
The Boxing Day Tsunami is believed to have killed at least 230,000 people, but it was the pandemonium that enveloped the region in its aftermath, despite a massive worldwide relief effort, that permanently altered the way Eberlein looks at disaster preparedness.
Eberlein will break down the predicted impact of a Cascadia earthquake — an event that experts have determined is long overdue — and what people can do to prepare for that and other disasters during his 90-minute "Prepare Out Loud" presentation Tuesday, scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. at Ashland Christian Fellowship (50 W. Hersey St.). The presentation is free and open to the public.
“I remember the chaos, and the uncertainty and the fear — those are the three things I remember most,” he said of the Boxing Day Tsunami. “There were so many people and resources coming into the country very, very quickly, because the international response, both as far as personnel and financially, was probably unlike anything that had ever been seen before. But one thing that we saw was that, number one, no matter how many resources or personnel that you have, when it all comes at once it takes time for everything to get sorted out to be used effectively. And two, when you have a damaged infrastructure — which of course they had on the coast because the tsunami came in so far — it’s very difficult to deliver supplies where they’re needed.
“For me, it became a cautionary tale of the importance of preparedness, because after a massive disaster like that it’s not just a question of having the resources in place. When you take away the infrastructure by which we deliver resources, it doesn’t matter how much you have.”
For that reason, Eberlein explains, it’s critical that each family take ownership of its own disaster preparedness now, rather than rely on the government’s emergency response when all hell’s breaking loose. Convincing Pacific Northwesterners to prepare for a major earthquake that could turn roads to mush and knock out the sewer system, water and gas lines and electricity for months became an easier sell after Kathryn Schulz’s Cascadia subduction zone explainer, “The Really Big One,” ran in The New Yorker two years ago.
In it, Schulz paints a vision of an 8.7-to-9.2 quake which reads like a Hollywood disaster script: bridges will collapse, dams will breach, houses will lurch, gas lines will rupture as appliances (and water heaters) shimmy and topple, and power lines will fall to the ground, which will be undergoing a process called liquefaction, behaving like liquid.
Then, for those unfortunate enough to be near the coast, a tsunami ranging from 22 feet to more than a hundred feet will swallow up everything near the shore and send the resulting deluge of earth and debris rushing through buildings and across city streets.
Since most buildings in the Pacific Northwest were not built to withstand earthquakes and emergency notification systems like those in Japan are not in place here, even FEMA’s conservative predictions are dire — 27,000 injured, 13,000 dead. And then there’s the anticipated infrastructure breakdown Eberlein witnessed in Sri Lanka. As one FEMA regional director told Schulz, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”
As Eberlein explains, those who believe that emergency responders will rush in to save the day should the big one, or very big one, ever hit the Northwest are operating on a false premise.
“I’ve lived in Oregon and naturally, after any disaster, we imagine that FEMA would be this omniscient, omnipotent force that will get to us just in time,” he said. “And part of the message that comes with my presentation is that that’s a sheer impossibility. Not because of one agency’s competence or incompetence, but because when you take away infrastructure and you have a need that is over a huge geography and it simultaneously affects 15 million people in three states and two countries, there’s no way that any agency or combination of agencies is going to be there in time for the immediate needs, such as injuries, such as water, such as medication, such as putting out the fire from your water heater that tipped over. Those things go away. And so it’s our role as citizens to get ready for that fact that we’re the ones that are going to save ourselves by actions that we take now. It’s not realistic with all the planning in the world that the government at the nonprofit level … is going to be able to save as many lives as preparedness itself will.”
So what should people do to get ready? Stockpile food and water — Eberlein recommends 14 gallons of water per family member — secure that water heater and make sure camping, first-aid and emergency supplies are securely stored (Eberlein keeps his in a 45-gallon Rubbermaid container). A brochure detailing Eberlein’s recommendations will be handed out Tuesday.
Eberlein, who graduated from Klamath Union High School in 1996 and lives in Portland, says his goal is not only to educate the masses about what it means to be prepared, but also to encourage everybody in the audience to share the steps they plan to take with family and friends. In order to reach enough people to make a real difference, he explains, the Red Cross’s Cascadia subduction zone awareness effort must become a movement.
“I’ve presented to 5,000 people, and that’s all swell, but it’s about one-third of one percent of the people who will be impacted by this disaster,” he said. “So how do we fill in the blanks and how do we get more people to prepare? One thing that we know really well is that people are more likely to change their own behavior if they see their peers change their behavior.”
For instance, Eberlein said, the unsung heroes in the buckle-up or anti-smoking movements are not the actors reading their lines for public service announcements, but the countless moms and dads, neighbors and co-workers who chose to make those decisions for common sense reasons.
“People prepare quietly and privately,” he said. “But in order for peer-to-peer influence to play the role that it needs to we need people to start preparing out loud.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.