Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
But to really prepare the Pacific Northwest for the Big One, much more needs to be done.
And the people felt the ground shaking and saw the water rising. Or at least, they heard the cries of the New Yorker saying so. And when the people knew that the Big One was coming, they trembled with fear. Well, some of them did.
The Biblical tone is appropriate. There really is a 9.0 earthquake/skyscraper-sized tsunami predicted to unmoor coastal life as we know it in the Pacific Northwest—quite possibly within the next 50 years. Last week the New Yorker trumpeted the story of these apocalyptic truths with terrifying exactness. 13,000 are projected to die, and millions more will be injured or displaced. It will take decades, and an incalculable sum, to recover.
But the article’s fear-mongering has also had an activating effect: People are suddenly buying emergency survival kits in droves. The Seattle Times writes of earthquake packages ‘flying off shelves’:
“Holy cow!” Steve O’Donnell remembers thinking, as he checked the online orders at the Burien headquarters of American Preparedness.Sales were going through the roof.
If you go on the websites of Costco, Staples or Amazon, you’ll see the small, eight-person company’s earthquake-preparedness kits for sale.
For $179.99, you can get a 2-person, 7-day kit.
For $139.99, it’s a 4-person, 3-day kit.
Packed with water, meal bars, ponchos, matches, and much more, these kits offer a convenient measure of preparedness, which the region is woefully short on. As the New Yorker article details, the region’s states are still lax on building standards and lack much in the way of evacuation training or communication. One Oregon community recently voted down a bond measure that would have paid for a new K-12 campus outside the tsunami inundation zone.
And even though American Preparedness is seeing a sharp rise in sales, the uptick in action isn’t universal. The Seattle Times writes:
Only a quarter of Seattleites are putting together an earthquake kit and building a family plan, says Barb Graff, director of emergency management for the city. That’s from a just-completed city survey.
And this “boomlet” for survival kits is probably just that—a temporary spark in concern, lit by a viral article. As I recently wrote, psychology tells us that we tend to have trouble getting worked up and mobilized over risks that are far-off and faceless. Certainly, it helps when an influential magazine runs a particularly well-written account of what those risks will look like.
To really sustain and spread an interest in preparedness, however, the Pacific Northwest will need to do more than stock earthquake kits. Government agencies will need to regularly, and thoughtfully, communicate the risks of the earthquake and tsunami to come. Building standards should be amped up and reported to the public. Cities should help subsidize the relatively low costs of securing foundations and bolting water heaters for homeowners and apartment managers.
But there’s no doubt that emergency kits are a great place to start. And anyone—whether their city is prone to earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, or stormy power outages—can prepare their own kits. The Centers for Disease Control, FEMA, and the city of Seattle all have handy tips and checklists. We can hope to never have to use them. Unfortunately, as big natural hazards increase in frequency and severity all over the world, the odds have never been higher.