Friday, March 25, 2011

Sitting OnThe Big One

Our building had its annual condo meeting last Monday. One of our members suggested that we clean out the hallway closet below the hallway stairs so that we might be able to store some bottled water in there in the eventuality of an earthquake.

Not a bad idea.

In fact, I would replace the word ‘eventuality’ with ‘inevitability.’

We are sitting on what is called a subduction zone. A subduction zone is an area where two tectonic plates move towards one another and one slides under the other. They move slowly, at about the rate a fingernail grows. Unfortunately, our seduction zone, which is identified with the weighty word Cascadia, is one of the quietest. You really don’t want a quiet subduction zone. Because what that means is that seismic strain has been accumulating without frequent release, as is the case for more seismically active regions such as California, or Japan.

Yes, Japan. If such a catastrophic quake can devastate a huge region of Japan, in a zone of active, unremitting subductioning, imagine what the effects of accumulated seismic stress can produce in a quiet area like Seattle, with its moss-laden balustrades, autistic billionaires, and timorous geeks.

Hence, bottled water. And maybe some canned goods. And a Coleman stove. Happily assuming that this part of our building is structurally sound and will not collapse. Though frankly, if Seattle gets whacked by a n 8.0 or 9.0 quake, very little will be left standing.

And so Roberta and I went to work at cleaning out the closet. You cannot imagine the mess. Well, maybe you can, if you have had experience with Condo building closets. They become internal landfills, deposits for years of confused and lazy tenants not knowing what to do with their inevitable detritus. Paint cans, brooms, mops, pieces of old furniture, pesticides, herbicides, suicides, plastic pipes, small mechanical devices of unknown function, the riotous coitus of tangled cords, water sprinklers, ecstasies of dust, antediluvian spider webs, inarticulate stains, funerary offerings and Egyptian mummies.

Roberta went to the liquor store for some boxes and returned and we began to fill the boxes with paint cans and thinner and anything else with the whiff of death about it. We took it to the hazardous waste site off Aurora on Stone Avenue North where we learned that they will not accept latex paint. We left a few things with the two hazardous waste technicians and returned home with a load of latex. The woman at the hazardous waste site suggested that we use kitty litter to accelerate the drying of the latex. Once the latex paint is dry, you can toss it into the bin for its usual pickup.

The closet looks quite nice now. We’re ready. Ready for bottled water. Canned goods. Coleman stove. The implements of survival. The kind of things the U.S. government was generally quick to dispense during a time of catastrophe. But as Katrina showed, they don’t do that anymore. Private military companies such as Blackwater (now called Xe Services LLC), send their well-armed thugs to protect the property of the rich, but that’s about all. Other than that, you’re on your own kid. Just don’t get caught looting water and milk for your starving kids from the local grocery or they’ll shoot you down.

I’ve been in two earthquakes, both in Seattle. One in 1965, a relatively mild 6.5, when I was a high school senior at Highline High School, sitting at my desk in health ed class. I thought at first that a big truck was going by, shaking the ground and building as it rumbled down 152nd Street in Burien. But it quickly became apparent it was a quake. The girl sitting behind me began to cry. The teacher, a roly-poly man with a crewcut, pressed himself against the blackboard with his arms outstretched and continued to shout “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!”

Three people died from falling debris in that ’65 quake, and the deaths of four elderly women from heart failure were attributed to the quake. 1,712 chimneys were damaged and it is said that the water in the toilets at the top of the Space Needle sloshed out.

The next quake occurred on February 28th, 2001. Called the Nisqually quake, it occurred at 10:54 a.m. and was one of the largest recorded earthquakes in Washington, measuring at 6.8 on the MMS (Moment Magnitude Scale) and lasting 45 seconds. I spent those 45 seconds in the bathroom doorway, believing that doorframes are among the more structurally sound areas in a building. There are two floors above us. I did not want them falling on my head. Roberta was at work, Larry’s Grocery Store, decorating a wedding cake.

Amazingly, that quake did not damage our building, which was constructed in 1962, during the construction of the Seattle World’s Fair. The architecture isn’t much to shout about, but the inner beams and supports are all sound and strong and stable.

I think a lot about Iowa. North Dakota. Nebraska. The plains. The geologically stable plains. But not Texas. Not Oklahoma. Not Kansas. The part of the plains were there are few tornadoes. The safest part of the plains. Where there are apt to be the most progressives, fewest fundamentalist wackos, fewest right wing militias, fewest Huckabee wannabes. I mean, why sit here in Seattle, waiting for that big quake to come?

Well, climate change. That’s another scary scenario to factor into the apocalyptic future. Seattle is one of the areas least susceptible to drought, and our winters are fairly mild. It’s a balancing act. Do we risk sitting on the next big one, in exchange for the relative security of water and mild temperatures, or should we start looking for a new home in Iowa, or North Dakota?

The answer for now is, yes. And hope for a little quake in the meantime, one of those nice, tension-releasing temblors in which nothing breaks, and very little shakes.


Steven Fama said...

Since the next-to-last paragraph ends with a compound question, the final paragraph's answer ("...for now, yes") is ambiguous. I actually like that uncertainty.

Stay or go?


I'm pretty sure the plains have something called the New Madrid fault beneath it that somebody may shake Saint Louis pretty hard, and maybe the Dakotas too (though I'm not sure about the last part here).

If you want geologically stable, I think it's the Mojave and environs. I *think* that's part of what made Yucca Mountain attractive for you-know-what.

More specifically, I know the town of Blythe, California -- On I-10, about half way between El Lay and Phoenix, is considered very stable geologically. Those who study such things claim it ain't had a significant quake in over a half-million years. To tell the truth, though, that particular place could use a bit of a shaking, I think, so dull is it.

John Olson said...

Thank you, Steve, for the dreaded Madrid fault warning. Blythe sounds blithely quake free, though, as you point out, maybe that's not such a good thing. We could all use a shaking up now & again. Just nothing too vigorous, especially around nuclear power plants. Another worry I neglected to mention. I think the one at Hanford has been shut down. I'm leaning toward North Dakota (their banking system is also very stable), though, with the Bakken oil formation, pumps are pumping up everywhere. Shades of the Gulf of Mexico.