By Gordon Williams 

All along the Pacific Coast, mid-June is time for CR22–this year’s version of the disaster drill known as Cascadia Rising. Emergency managers from California to Alaska–including disaster response experts  from the American Red Cross–are using the drill to  revise and refine how they would react to the event widely described as “The Big One.” 

That would be a massive earthquake centered on the Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ). When the Big One hits–and no one can say when that might be–it could be the most destructive event ever recorded in North America.  

Best estimates are that the quake would register 9.0 on the Richter scale. The continental United States has never experienced a 9.0 earthquake. The worst quake ever in the 50 states was the 9.2 event that struck Prince William Sound Alaska in 1964. The worst quakes ever in the lower 48 were two 7.9 events– New Madrid MO in 1812 and Fort Tejon CA in 1857. 

To understand what The Big One would involve, you have to understand that the world rests on tectonic plates that literally drift from place to place. Quakes occur when one plate scrapes another. In this case, rather than merely bumping, the Juan de Fuca plate is sliding under the North American plate. The fault line where the plates meet is the CSZ–800 miles long, running from California to British Columbia.  

So far the North American plate has absorbed the stress. At some point, it will become too great and the result will be The Big One. No one knows when The Big One might occur. Scientists have determined that quakes along the CSZ have occurred every 243 years. The last known quake was in 1700–over 320 years ago. But no one is able to predict quakes with any accuracy so no one knows when the next one will occur–except that it is overdue.  

What disaster planners do know is that when it does occur, the consequences from the quake and the resultant tsunami will be dreadful. The death toll could top 15,000, with twice that number injured. Seattle, Portland and Vancouver would be wrecked. Hundreds of miles of highways and rail lines would be destroyed, Power and communications up and down the Pacific coast would be out and thousands of water and gas lines would be ripped apart. 

Those left unharmed by the quake could find themselves stranded in isolated communities with food, shelter and medical care hard to find. The Washington State Department of Emergency Management warns that those affected by The Big One will be on their own for up to two weeks before significant help from outside arrives. That includes finding their own shelter from the elements and using what food and water they had stored or could salvage. 

Photo courtesy: Washington Emergency Management Division – Cascadia Rising 2022

The Red Cross role in the CR22 drill will be considerable. Among the Red Crossers involved in planning sessions with Washington state officials are Erin McCann, Divisional Disaster State Relations Director for the Red Cross Pacific Division, Jenny Carkner, Regional Disaster Officer for the Northwest Region, Steve Finley, Disaster Program Manager for the South Puget Sound and Olympics chapter, Larry Smith, Emergency Manager Lead for the Northwest region, and Rod Garrow, a volunteer in government relations. Red Cross focus at the drill, McCann says, will be on mass care–how to deliver care to victims. 

The quake itself would generate a huge response from the Red Cross. It would, says an advisory from the organization’s national headquarters, “trigger an immediate nationally-led American Red Cross Disaster Relief Operation.” How individuals respond to the quake will depend on where they are. Larry Smith explains that for planning purposes Washington is divided into three zones–red, amber and green. The red zone covers Western Washington, where quake damage will be the worst.  The amber and green zones are farther inland, away from the quake.) 

While help will obviously be needed most in the red zone, it is accepted that Red Cross teams in the zone will first need to help their own families and communities, before they can help others.  “In impacted areas, establishing the safety of our families and our neighborhoods is the priority for local Red Crossers,” says that Red Cross national advisory. Unlike the shelters the Red Cross typically opens after a localized disaster, the sheer scale of The Big One will require mega shelters, most likely run by the military. 

McCann does expect Red Crossers on the scene to use such skills as first aid to help their local communities. Red Cross units that are safely away from the quake zone would provide what support they can– collecting cots and blankets for use in the quake zone and helping reunite families that were torn apart by the quake. Smith says the supplies would then be carried to the scene by the Navy and Coast Guard. 

Red Cross units around the country–plus  Red Cross organizations from abroad–would lend their help. McCann says the full global resources of the Red Cross will go toward bringing food and supplies as close to the disaster zone as they can get. As an indication of just how disruptive The Big One might be, McCann says it is possible that the closest fully operational airport to the Northwest could be in Las Vegas–over 1,100 miles away from the regional Red Cross headquarters in Seattle. 

You can prepare your family and your home for an earthquake or tsunami. Go to RedCross.org to learn more.

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