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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Chilean Quake a Warning to U.S. Northwest

February 28, 2010, 6:29 PM

Chilean Quake a Warning to U.S. Northwest

I'm dealing with a disaster of microscopic dimensions, being among the 200,000 households in the Northeast still lacking electricity, heat and flushing toilets three days after an astonishing dump of snow (with several more days to go, supposedly).

But I'm able to get online long enough to reflect on the message sent to the Pacific Northwest from the great earthquake in the southern hemisphere.

That message is a clear "get ready."

The Pacific " ring of fire" doesn't stop at the equator. While my print story and post on quake threats last week focused on the seismic peril facing millions of poor people living in fast-growing cities in quake zones, there are plenty of prosperous places that have not adequately responded to their exposure to enormous, and inevitable, earthquake risk.

A prime case in point is Oregon. After the destruction of hundreds of poorly built schools in China's Sichuan province, I wrote repeatedly here and in print about  similar vulnerability identified by engineers and seismologistsin that state, despite the clear record of devastating quakes and tsunamis generated by the  Cascadia fault beneath the sea bed off the Northwest coast.

Read this recent  warning from Patrick Corcoran, a hazards outreach specialist with the Oregon Sea Grant program at Oregon State University:

"The release of pressure between two overlapping tectonic plates along the subduction zone regularly generates massive 9.0 magnitude earthquakes –- including five over the last 1,400 years. The last 'Big One' was 309 years ago. We are in a geologic time when we can expect another 'Big One,' either in our lives or those of our children. Prudence dictates that we overcome our human tendencies to ignore this inevitability."

The good news is that the state has recognized the problem and has found some money to move forward with a plan to retrofit public schools and other important public buildings (thanks to  Yumei Wang from the state's geohazards group for the alert on this).

The bad news, of course, is that the seismic clock is ticking.

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