Last month, a headline in the Seattle Times PNW Magazine screamed: “A deadly earthquake absolutely, positively will ravage Seattle.” Because it was April 1, I was tempted to laugh after my initial flinch of dismay. As one of the steady volunteers on the Madison Park Emergency Preparation Team, I was surprised by how quickly I wanted to put my head in the sand.
The article’s author, David Guterson, reviewed the seismology of the megathrusts expected in our region with the Cascadia Subduction Zone, and he offers only a bit of reassurance.
“Seattleites can feel confident that when the next megathrust quake happens in the coastal Northwest, Puget Sound isn’t going to be roiled the way the Pacific was roiled by the Great East Japan or Indian Ocean earthquakes. There will be plenty of suffering, and certainly some deaths, but no apocalyptic lethality.”
Okay, I’m breathing easier for a moment. He goes on to describe another, perhaps even bigger, challenge for us, however:
“The next major quake in what is known as the Seattle Fault Zone, though, will originate directly under our city at a shallow depth. The megathrust quake will be of the 9 variety; the Seattle quake will be more like a 7. Don’t be comforted by your take on those scale figures … a 7.0 quake in 2010 killed more than 300,000 people in Haiti … or like the 6.9 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, in 1995, that killed thousands of people and did more than $100 billion worth of damage. As it turns out, geologic circumstances under Seattle are much like those under Kobe… [we’ll likely have] a ground rupture of about 6 vertical feet from Harbor Island to Issaquah ... Power, water, sewer and gas lines will be severed, as will the cables and wires that make internet connections possible. Our hospitals will be overrun, and our grocery stores will empty … firestorms, hazardous material spills, downed bridges, landslides by the thousands.”
Gulp! Given the daily onslaught of other unsettling news in the world, what’s a person to do with information like this? Guterson reminds us that our brains don’t know how to take in these alarming possibilities, and so we gravitate toward the low odds and bet against it happening in our lifetime.
“And by betting against it, I mean not preparing for it. Every time an earthquake happens, most people are surprised … [so] it makes sense to take steps now, because by putting them off you increase the risk that your motivation will fade to nothing.”
Making something of what we know
When this article came out with its disturbing reminders, I was near the end of Rebecca Solnit’s book, “A Paradise Built in Hell. The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.” As it turns out, this was the perfect companion reading to clear my head. Solnit describes true (pre-2020 global pandemic) stories from recent history where ordinary people responded to a variety of disasters with creativity and compassion. Reading these stories reconnected me with my own examples of the best in humanity I’ve seen in these last two years as people faced the fear, disruption and lockdown from the pandemic that upended our lives.
Solnit reminds us, “Disasters demonstrate what is possible or, perhaps more accurately, latent: the resilience and generosity of those around us and their ability to improvise another kind of society. Second, they demonstrate how deeply most of us desire connection, participation, altruism, and purposefulness.”
The author raises the very questions and sentiments I’m left with:
“Why didn’t this last? Why didn’t the deep sense of connection, the generosity and valor, the sense of purpose, the awareness that everything can change suddenly as both danger and possibility, last?
If a disaster shakes people awake, then these are tactics to remain awake without a disaster.”
In these times of getting on with our lives, how do we stay awake to our deepest longings, our basic hunger for connection and a greater sense of purpose? How do we avoid returning to a way of living that was less meaningful and ultimately not sustainable? Wouldn’t squandering the opportunity to rebuild our daily lives in a more satisfying way be its own disaster? I take Solnit’s words as a call to action:
“Disaster reveals what else the world could be like — reveals the strength of that hope, that generosity, and that solidarity. It reveals mutual aid as a default operating principle and civil society as something waiting in the wings when it’s absent from the stage.
Disaster may offer us a glimpse, but the challenge is to make something of it, before or beyond disaster: to recognize and realize these desires and these possibilities in ordinary times. If there are ordinary times ahead. We are entering an era where sudden and slow disasters will become far more powerful and far more common.”
Neighborhood efforts to better prepare for disasters involve gathering supplies, establishing an emergency communication hub and holding drills to practice the needed skills of staying calm and setting up mutual aid systems. As we gather, we learn how to become more creative when we are required to make do with less than what we’re used to. We make connections with neighbors we now greet by name on the street. We are preparing for emergencies, but, more than that, we are bringing to the present a sense of engagement with something beyond our self-interests. We keep each other motivated to get stuff done, to stay out of denial without sinking into despair.
Doesn’t that sound like something you’d like to be part of?
Contact us to get information and get involved.
Sarah Armstrong, firstname.lastname@example.org
Mary Beth McAteer, email@example.com
Margie Carter, firstname.lastname@example.org