In the summer of 2015, residents of Seattle woke up to the realization that there was the geologic equivalent of a six-shooter loaded with a live bullet pointed at their heads.
The New Yorker magazine published a piece by writer Kathryn Schulz titled “The Really Big One” that described in chilling detail the catastrophic earthquake that will, eventually, decimate the Northwest Coast of the United States.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates that 40,000 people will be dead or injured in the wake of the Cascadia subduction-zone quake and following tsunami. One FEMA official was quoted saying that everything west of Interstate 5 would be “toast.”
The article spawned panicked media coverage and the Pacific Northwest lost its collective mind.
Barb Graff kept working.
For the director of Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management, the concept of a subduction zone earthquake was nothing new. The last one known struck 316 years ago in 1700. Because they’re estimated to occur every 300 to 500 years, the fault line is due for a rumble with a 30 percent chance that it will happen in the next 50 years.
“The city has been planning for disasters for many years,” Graff said. “We spend a lot of time preparing for earthquakes and other bad things on the list.”
Despite the fact that such a catastrophic disaster has been the topic of conversation for a year, and that the possibility existed long before that, most people are completely unprepared. According to a FEMA survey, fewer than 60 percent of adults have participated in a practice drill for an emergency, and maybe 39 percent have a plan in place to cope with one.
It’s unlikely that those statistics include homeless people, a group that doesn’t fit into regular disaster planning and accesses services in central Seattle, which could also be dubbed ground zero for any major earthquake. The historic area will be hardest hit by any natural disaster and is also least able to withstand one.
When faced with an unstoppable natural disaster, the only offense is a good defense. To survive the big quake, buildings should shake but not collapse, communities should have predetermined gathering places to regroup after the event and people should be prepared with emergency supplies to get them through the critical period before overextended emergency personnel arrive.
At first glance, Pioneer Square — Seattle’s original central business district — meets next to none of those criteria. Unfortunately, it’s also where a great deal of homeless services are concentrated.
The area is littered with unreinforced masonry, buildings constructed of brick load-bearing walls without steel reinforcement that are vulnerable to earthquakes. Of the roughly 50 community-organized emergency hubs in Seattle, only three fall south of Ballard and north of Dearborn Street, leaving almost the entirety of central Seattle with no defined place to go.
These buildings were an architectural reaction to the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 that burned Seattle’s central business district to the ground after the unfortunate ignition of a pot of glue in a cabinet shop at First Avenue and Madison Street highlighted the vulnerabilities of clapboard construction.
By 1900, most of the more than 2,000 unreinforced brick buildings in Seattle had been built with the goal of preventing one kind of disaster.
Instead, they created another.
Although some work has been done to retrofit these buildings, it is an expensive proposition. According to a 2014 report to the Department of Planning and Development, the likelihood of an earthquake that could damage the buildings is 4.1 percent in any given year, making the cost to retrofit unattractive.
“Ironically, this analysis shows that if the city were to require retrofits there is a very real risk of losing more [unreinforced masonry buildings] to owner demolition than to earthquakes,” the report reads.
At the same time, should a disaster strike, it’s likely to hit this area the hardest.
Seattle puts out a Natural Hazard Explorer map, an online tool that shows how experts predict natural disasters will affect the city. If the Seattle Fault starts quaking, the heaviest impact will start in a thin strip just north of Yesler Way and expand steadily southward.
Liquefaction — when a combination of loose soil, water and an earthquake makes solid ground resemble a liquid state — follows much the same pattern as the earthquake.
Although information about the location and severity of earthquake damage is available to those who know where to look, it requires an internet connection or contact with an organization that can spread the word, resources that could be available to homeless people but not as pervasively as for the general population.
Practice makes perfect
After the publication of Schulz’s piece, a group of UW students began looking at how homeless people might prepare for The Really Big One.
Their conclusion: Many of the resources used to reach people in less precarious situations — text message alerts, online guides, neighborhood groups organizing with the help of Seattle City Hall — aren’t available to homeless people or other vulnerable groups such as the elderly or those for whom English is not their first language.
“Government has so many good resources. That’s what we found in our research. They’re meant to reach out to the public,” said Rebekah Cheng, a senior at UW studying international development. “The public includes these vulnerable populations like the homeless and non-English speaking populations.”
There need to be ways to include them, Cheng said.
“The most important thing is a culture of inclusiveness that goes beyond social status or economic status,” said Mihai Baltatescu, also a UW senior who worked on the project. “People should be included not because they have something to offer but because they should be included.”
It may be that homeless people are better prepared than the housed when it comes to a major disaster.
Although it’s unlikely that they’ll have emergency supplies ready, neither do most people, and the precarious nature of daily life for homeless people means they’ve dealt with the difficulties of finding safe places to sleep and know where to go to get help.
“People downtown who work in the metro area and had to seek shelter for the first time wouldn’t have a clue where to go probably,” said Major Philip Smith, director of the Salvation Army Seattle Social Services.
Places such as shelters that contract with City Hall are required to have continuity plans on file with the Human Services Department. The intention is that not only will they be prepared to keep their doors open, they’ll be able to help more than just homeless people, said Shaun Jones, the Northwest Division emergency disaster services director for the Salvation Army.
Put that way, the lack of community organized emergency hubs in central Seattle seems less dire; the system is already in place, it just doesn’t appear on any map.
However, levels of preparedness vary.
While places such as the Salvation Army — which receives city funds — and the Union Gospel Mission — which does not — practice drills and have safe spaces in event of emergency, others do not.
There was a big push for continuity plans several years ago after a destructive snowstorm. City Hall did a pilot with a number of organizations to make sure continuity plans were in place, said Katherine Jolly, spokesperson for the Human Services Department.
The department is currently in the process of adding such requirements to contracts as they come up for renewal, she said, but the direction is broad and the plans may not need to conform to any standard or review.
“At minimum, we’re asking people to develop and maintain plans,” she said.
DESC, another group that contracts with City Hall, survived the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. The event motivated the organization to prepare for the next earthquake through retrofits in its central building, The Morrison, and by practicing drills, said Greg Jensen, director of Administrative Services at DESC.
The shelter has supplies of food and water on hand, but there’s only so much that can be done without additional resources, Jensen said.
“We operate in such a way that we’re essentially managing an emergency already,” Jensen said. “We would be limited to do a great deal more than we’re doing now.”
People are working to improve the situation downtown. There are plans for 40 more emergency hubs to meet the deficit in central Seattle, and neighborhoods are starting to get in on the action.
Linda Mitchell, spokesperson for Mary’s Place, said that the organization is just starting to prepare for disaster and so is the apartment building where she lives.
Plans for homeless people and stranded commuters factor heavily into that, she said.
“The homeless community and how to provide for them is a big part of what the hubs are and what they do,” Mitchell said.
Ready to roll?
Emergency-service professionals plan for something like the Cascadia subduction-zone earthquake because if they’re ready for it, they’re ready for basically anything. While not as destructive, the Seattle Fault is expected to reach 7.0 and 7.5 and emergency officials think it will hit the region sooner than the event along the Cascadia subduction zone.
Ultimately, a disaster is a disaster.
If The Really Big One strikes at noon on a Tuesday when Seattle is full of commuters, there’s nothing that can be done to avoid it, whether you’re in an office, a shelter or a tent. You just have to be ready.
“You don’t want to be part of the problem,” Smith said.