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'It could happen tomorrow': Experts know disaster upon disaster looms for West Coast

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Leroy N. Soetoro

Mar 22, 2022, 7:21:02 PM3/22/22

It's the elevators that worry earthquake engineering expert Keith Porter
the most.

Scientists say a massive quake could strike the San Francisco Bay Area at
any moment. And when it does, the city can expect to be slammed with a
force equal to hundreds of atomic bombs.

Porter said the shaking will quickly cut off power in many areas. That
means unsuspecting people will be trapped between floors in elevators
without backup power. At peak commute times, the number of those trapped
could be in the thousands.

To escape, the survivors of the initial quake will need the help of
firefighters with specialized training and tools.

But their rescuers won't come – at least not right away. Firefighters will
be battling infernos that could outnumber the region's fire engines.

Running water will be in short supply. Cellphone service may not work at
all. The aftershocks will keep coming.

And the electricity could remain off for weeks.

"That means people are dead in those elevators,” Porter said.

'Problems on the horizon'
The situation Porter described comes from his work on the HayWired
Scenario, a detailed look at the cascading calamities that will occur when
a major earthquake strikes the Bay Area's Hayward Fault, including the
possibility of widespread power outages that will strand elevators.

The disaster remains theoretical for now. But the United States Geological
Survey estimates a 51% chance that a quake as big as the one described in
HayWired will occur in the region within three decades.

It's one of several West Coast disasters so likely that researchers have
prepared painstakingly detailed scenarios in an attempt to ready

The experts who worked on the projects are highly confident the West Coast
could at any moment face disasters with the destructive power to kill
hundreds or thousands of people and forever change the lives of millions
more. They also say there's more that can be done to keep individuals –
and society – safer.

"We’re trying to have an earthquake without having one,” Anne Wein told
USA TODAY. Wein is a USGS researcher who co-leads the HayWired earthquake
scenario and has worked on several other similar projects.

Such disaster scenarios are massive undertakings that bring together
experts from various fields who otherwise would have little reason to work
together – seismologists, engineers, emergency responders and social

That's important because "it's difficult to make new relationships in a
crisis," Wein said.

Similar projects aimed at simulating a future disaster have turned out to
be hauntingly accurate.

The Hurricane Pam scenario foretold many of the devastating consequences
of a major hurricane striking New Orleans well before Hurricane Katrina
hit the city.

More recently, in 2017, the authors of “The SPARS Pandemic” called their
disaster scenario “futuristic.” But now the project now reads like a
prophecy of COVID-19. Johns Hopkins University even issued a statement
saying the 89-page document was not intended as a prediction of COVID-19.

“The SPARS Pandemic” imagined a future where a deadly novel coronavirus
spread around the world, often without symptoms, as disinformation and
vaccine hesitancy constantly confounded experts’ efforts to keep people

The “SPARS scenario, which is fiction, was meant to give public health
communicators a leg up … Think through problems on the horizon,” author
Monica Schoch-Spana told USA TODAY.

At the time that SPARS was written, a global pandemic was thought of in
much the same way experts currently describe the HayWired earthquake: an
imminent catastrophe that could arrive at any time.

'It could happen tomorrow'
Disaster scenario researchers each have their own way of describing how
likely the apocalyptic futures they foresee are.

"The probability (of) this earthquake is 100%, if you give me enough
time," seismologist Lucy Jones will often say.

Earthquakes occurring along major faults are a certainty, but scientists
can't predict exactly when earthquakes will happen – the underground
forces that create them are too random and chaotic. But researchers know a
lot about what will happen once the earth begins to shake.

Earthquakes like HayWired are “worth planning for," Porter said. Because
“it could happen tomorrow.”

“We don’t know when,” Porter said. But "it will happen."

Wein says we're “overdue for preparedness.” You might say we're also
overdue for a major West Coast disaster.

The kind of earthquake described in HayWired historically occurs every
100-220 years. And it's been more than 153 years since the last one.

Farther south in California, it's difficult to pin down exactly how at
risk Los Angeles is for The Big One – the infamous theoretical earthquake
along the San Andreas fault that will devastate the city. But a massive
magnitude 7.5 earthquake has about a 1 in 3 chance of striking the Los
Angeles area in the next 30 years, the United States Geological Survey

A 2008 scenario said a magnitude 7.8 quake could cause nearly 2,000 deaths
and more than $200 billion in economic losses. Big quakes in Los Angeles
are particularly devastating because the soil holding up the city will
turn into a "bowl of jelly," according to a post published by catastrophe
modeling company Temblor.

Another scenario warns that a stretch of coast in Oregon and Washington
state is capable of producing an earthquake much more powerful than the
ones California is bracing for. Parts of coastline would suddenly drop 6
feet, shattering critical bridges, destroying undersea communication
cables and producing a tsunami.

Thousands are expected to die, but local leaders are considering projects
that could give coastal residents a better chance at survival.

It too "could happen at any time," the scenario says.

Earthquake scenarios often focus on major coastal cities, but West Coast
residents farther inland also have yet another disaster to brace for.

"Megastorms are California's other Big One," the ARkStorm scenario says.
It warns of a statewide flood that will cause more than a million
evacuations and devastate California's agriculture.

Massive storms that dump rain on California for weeks on end historically
happen every few hundred years. The last one hit around the time of the
Civil War, when weeks of rain turned portions of the state "into an inland

'Decades to rebuild'
Whether the next disaster to strike the West Coast is a flood, an
earthquake or something else, scenario experts warn that the impacts will
reverberate for years or longer.

"It takes decades to rebuild,” Wein said. “You have to think about a
decade at least."

A major West Coast earthquake isn't just damaged buildings and cracked

It's weeks or months without running water in areas with millions of
people. It's mass migrations away from ruined communities. It's thousands
of uninhabitable homes.

Depending on the scenario, thousands of people are expected to die.
Hundreds of thousands more could be left without shelter. And those
impacts will be a disproportionately felt.

California already has a housing and homelessness crisis, and Nnenia
Campbell said the next disaster is set to magnify inequalities. Campbell
is the deputy director of the William Averette Anderson Fund, which works
to mitigate disasters for minority communities.

Campbell doesn't talk about "natural disasters" because there's nothing
natural about the way a major earthquake will harm vulnerable communities
more than wealthy ones.

Human decisions such as redlining have led to many of the inequities in
our society, she said. But humans can make decisions that will help make
the response to the next disaster more equitable.

Many of those choices need to be made by local leaders and emergency
management planners. Investing in infrastructure programs that will make
homes in minority communities less vulnerable to earthquakes.
Understanding how important a library is to unhoused people. Making sure
all schools are built to withstand a disaster. Keeping public spaces open,
even during an emergency.

But individuals can make a difference as well, Campbell said. You can
complete training that will prepare you to help your community in the
event of an emergency. Or you can join a mutual aid network, a group where
community members work together to help each other.

Community support is a common theme among disaster experts: One of the
best ways to prepare is to know and care about your neighbors.

If everyone only looks out for themselves in the next disaster, “we are
going to have social breakdown," Jones said.

What you can do
Experts acknowledge you'll want to make sure you and your family are safe
before being able to help others. Fortunately, many disaster preparedness
precautions are inexpensive and will help in a wide range of emergency

Be prepared to have your access to electricity or water cut off for days
or weeks.

For electricity, you'll at least want a flashlight and a way to charge
your phone.

While cell service will be jammed immediately after a major earthquake,
communications will likely slowly come back online faster than other
services, Wein said. (And when trying to use your phone, text – don't
call. In a disaster, text messages are more reliable and strain cell
networks less.)

To power your phone, you can cheaply buy a combination weather radio,
flashlight and hand-crank charger to keep your cell running even without
power for days.

A cash reserve is good to have, too, Jones said. You'll want to be able to
buy things, even if your credit card doesn't work for a time.

Preparing for earthquakes specifically is important along the West Coast,
too, experts said. Simple things like securing bookshelves can save lives.
Downloading an early warning app can give you precious moments to protect
yourself in the event of a big quake. Buying earthquake insurance can
protect homeowners. And taking part in a yearly drill can help remind you
about other easy steps you can take to prepare.

There's even more you could do to ready yourself for a catastrophe, but
many disaster experts are hesitant to rely on individuals' ability to
prepare themselves.

Just as health experts have begged Americans to use masks and vaccines to
help keep others safe during the pandemic, disaster scenario experts
believe community members will need to look out for one another when the
next disaster strikes.

Telling people to prepare as if “nobody is coming to help you” is a self-
fulfilling prophesy, Jones said.

For now, policymakers hold the real power in how prepared society will be
for the next disaster. And there are many problems to fix, according to
Porter, including upgrading city plumbing, because many aging and brittle
water pipes will shatter in a major earthquake, cutting off water to
communities for weeks or months.

"Shake it, and it breaks,” Porter said.

Getting ready for the next big earthquake means mundane improvements like
even stricter building codes, emergency water supply systems for
firefighters and retrofitting elevators with emergency power.

The elevator change could prevent thousands of people from being trapped
when the big San Francisco earthquake comes.

“A lot of that suffering can be avoided," Porter said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: California's Big One just
one West Coast disaster worth preparing for

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