Early Warning, Preparing Could Curb NW Megaquake's Wrath (script)

Dec 1, 2011

PORTLAND - The massive earthquake that struck Japan in March of this year devastated that country. But it could have caused even more damage if Japan didn’t have a high-tech early warning system. Now, Northwest scientists are beginning to install a network of sensors that could send out alerts when a megaquake is on its way. As journalist Bill Lascher found, North America’s first earthquake alert system would be more sophisticated than the one in Japan.

Earthquakes are cacophonous, frightening affairs. Survivors of the 9.0 Tohoku quake in Japan might never forget the earth-shattering noise unleashed this Spring.

Sound: rattling

This videographer had the time to capture this noise for a YouTube video thanks to a four-year-old earthquake warning system in Japan. The massive energy released from a Subduction zone off the Japanese coast tripped the system’s sensors. The alerts that went out stopped bullet trains and shut down factories. It also sent an automated countdown to the computers of residents like this videographer.

Sound: alert system

The U.S. doesn’t have a warning system like this. Now scientists in the Northwest are gearing up to build an even better array of sensors, says John Vidale, who heads the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.

John Vidale: “If we see the earthquake happening we can tell people that big shaking is on the way and get them, in the best case, three or four minutes of warning.”

A private foundation gave $2 million each to the University of Washington and two California universities for the warning system’s first pieces. But even if scientists know an earthquake is starting, they’re still studying how to deliver that message. That’s why they’re also talking with emergency managers about how to implement the warning network. Vidale says they won’t adopt the system until they know it’s accurate.

John Vidale: “They're not even sure they want to receive the warnings yet because receiving the warnings mean they have to do the appropriate thing with them. It's as easy to do harm as it is to do good if you have some news that has the potential for panic and overreaction.”

The Northwest is prone to earthquakes as big as the ones that recently hit Japan, Chile and New Zealand. Pressure continues to build in the Cascadia Subduction Zone. It’s an offshore stretch from Northern California to British Columbia. Seismologists believe it ruptures every four to six centuries. The last megaquake here happened more than 300 years ago. This warning system is one way to prepare, public outreach is another. Some Northwest communities have volunteer emergency response trainings with months-long waitlists.

Jeff TK: “once the shaking stops.

At a recent Portland event, about two dozen people paid $5 each to role-play as decision-makers during a major subduction zone quake.

Michael Kubler: “What would the basis be for triaging people as they come in?”

Alexis Lightwine: “You kind of have to know where everybody lies because you have to figure out how much resources are you going to use”

That was Michael Kubler and Alexis Lightwine discussing how a fictional hospital might handle an influx of casualties after the imaginary quake. Disaster preparedness experts designed this Portland in Pieces simulation for the Portland City Club’s New Leaders Council. For two hours, attendees became government officials, hospital staff, scared neighbors, emergency managers and even tenacious reporters. Organizer Eric Gebbie says role-playing gives people a unique glimpse at how complicated it is to respond to a major disaster.

Eric Gebbie: “You can have a lecture, you can give out fliers and you’re not sure what that does, but if you make the event itself fun and they come to it and learn something and they say hey we want to do more, you've created motivation and some learning and they're going to teach us something from it.”

Portland's not the only community in the Northwest preparing for a major earthquake, Gebbie says.

Eric Gebbie: “Other communities are doing all kinds of things from forming emergency response teams, working on scenarios; some are doing nothing, and they need to do more.”

Ann Whitsell play-acted as an emergency manager during the simulation. The Portland resident says people fret about preparedness immediately after high profile natural disasters elsewhere, but they don't often follow through.

Ann Whitsell: “It won't happen until we get a scare. It's like a heart attack.”

The new earthquake warning system might be a chance to monitor seismic palpitations.

Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

On the Web:

Pacific Northwest Seismic Network:

Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation press release:

Home video of earthquake warning: