Jonathan Williams: Writer's Notebook: 'You are the help until help arrives'

·4 min read

Oct. 16—As we move into the storm season, my mind always goes back to the Great Coastal Gale of 2007.

It was a Sunday night and "Desperate Housewives" was on. I was in middle school. Ironically, a storm was happening in their fictitious world too, only ours really did take out the power — for nearly a week. While that storm was horrific in its destruction — winds toppled decades-old trees, power lines littered roadways in addition to a lack of food and gas — a Cascadia Subduction Zone event will be different.

Many are already keenly aware of what it is — a devastating event that could happen in the next 50 years beginning with a building-shaking earthquake followed by tsunami waves dozens of feet high carrying debris from the earthquake. It is estimated most will have around 15 to 20 minutes to reach higher ground. Rebuilding from it could take years.

As Kathryn Schulz writes of the Pacific Northwest in her Pulitzer Prize-winning feature, "The Really Big One" in The New Yorker: "When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America, outside of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which killed upward of a hundred thousand people." Schulz goes on to write how most in the region are sadly not prepared for this event.

Unsettled? Me, too.

As a graduate student, I remember sitting in a class with colleagues nearly 2,500 miles from the Oregon Coast hearing others talk about the Cascadia event in awe — only to feel a lump in my stomach as I worried about my family. I grew up on the North Coast. My parents and grandparents have lived here for over 50 years. They built their lives and business here. It is chilling to imagine all of the coast's beautiful landscaped ravaged.

So, I decided, enough. Instead of just knowing about this disaster that is likely to occur, I wanted to find out what can be done to prepare. After the heat wave in June, the ice storm in February and the smoke from the wildfires last fall, it has become painfully clear the future won't be full of less disasters, as scientists predict more are likely to occur.

On Tuesday, I attended a talk given by geologist and Seaside City Councilor Tom Horning on the Cascadia event. Held in a conference room at the Seaside Civic and Convention Center, the event was packed. Nearly 100 people showed up. You could see and feel the audience's collective shifting in their chairs when particularly uncomfortable, sobering facts were presented. While I also left feeling uneasy, I did feel empowered by what I'd learned.

Horning's talk was not only informative, but moving in getting people to see what they can do before the big one hits. As Su Coddington, the leader of the Seaside Community Emergency Response Team, put it: "You are the help until help arrives."

While there are only a few minutes to head toward safety when Cascadia happens, people should also be prepared to wait for weeks for help to arrive. If it were to happen, the electrical grid would go down almost instantly. Roads would be unnavigable. And it would impact large cities far from the coast like Portland, Eugene, Salem and Seattle.

So, while all of this is terrifying, what can you do to prepare now? Pack a go-kit. The American Red Cross recommends including: "a gallon of water per person, per day, nonperishable food, a flashlight, battery-powered radio, first aid kit, medications, supplies for infants or pets, a multipurpose tool, personal hygiene items, copies of important papers, cellphone chargers, blankets, maps of the area and emergency contact information."

They recommend creating a plan for an emergency: What will you do if your family is separated? What about your pets? The Red Cross also encourages people to stay informed of your local areas' plans during an emergency. I'd also recommend taking the time now to begin digitizing important documents and special mementos, like family photos.

With the pandemic bearing down on our lives for nearly two years, it can feel almost insurmountable to try to prepare for one more thing. But this one is different. Pack a go-kit, know your tsunami evacuation route, participate in the Great Oregon ShakeOut on Thursday, attend a meeting of the Clatsop County Tsunami Evacuation Facilities Improvement Plan, join or attend meetings for your area's Community Emergency Response Team, help your neighbors prepare, ask questions of your locally elected officials and sign up for ShakeAlert in Oregon.

As The New Yorker magazine writer Ed Caesar, in describing the ensuing disaster if an old supertanker docked off the coast of Yemen filled with oil were to explode, writes, "Journalists often cover disasters after they happen. We rarely tell the stories of disasters that have yet to occur, but are so plainly and chillingly foreseeable."

While Yemen is a world away from the North Coast, we too have our own looming disaster that ticks away beneath the sea. Let's help each other prepare now and not wish we had done so sooner.

Jonathan Williams is the associate editor of The Astorian.