PART 2: The Hazards to expect in EQ Response

This is Part 2 in a planned series on earthquake response here in Cascadia. A new installment will post about every three weeks. This article contains one affiliate link. If you purchase through it, I may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

As I plotted the course of this series, it became about breaking it up into blog-sized chunks. As a former sailor, firefighter and shipwright, it is tempting to jump into the parts I know best, such as shoring or ropes and knots. I’m also an industrial safety specialist, so Personal Protective Equipment also leapt out at me as a topic. It then became obvious: before I discuss PPE and solutions to hazards, we should discuss the hazards themselves.

In the Fall of 1989, I was finishing up a year of schooling to be a Gunner’s Mate at the Naval Station in Great Lakes, Illinois. As the World Series played out in California’s Bay Area, it suffered one of the worst earthquakes in modern American history. The 15-seond quake was actually centered 60-miles south. Sixty-seven people died and more than 3000 were injured. The thing I’ll never forget is seeing the pancaked Nimitz Freeway. For over a mile, the upper level flattened the lower. It seemed miraculous to me that only forty-two people died in the bridge collapse, considering the event happened in the evening rush hour.

In case you’re not familiar with the term, “pancake” is an actual term to describe the destruction of a building or bridge when decks fall on each other. Structural collapse will be the primary focus of this series. I’ll start by saying that I’m no engineer or architect. That said, I have twenty-five years of scaffold and shoring experience: I’ve seen what happens when physics aren’t respected. And that basically sums up earthquake damage—the application of extreme physical forces to engineering.

Now before you panic—let me remind you that modern engineering has greatly magnified the amount of forces that structures can withstand. The use of special expansion joints and rubber shock-mounts in skyscrapers—not unlike very similar features in the Navy’s surface ships and submarines—proved in the Kobe, Japan earthquake of 1995 to be very effective at allowing buildings to sway during the event. While that sounds—pardon the bluntness, scary as shit—it is much better than a rigid and unwavering structure that bends at the stress points and snaps off. That 7.2 earthquake killed more than 6000. Don’t let that number mislead my point, though. Much of Kobe is literally hundreds of years old—their modern facilities withstood well.

Modern suburban two and three story commercial structures are often made out of concrete or framing. The bricks are usually facade, not structural.

When I was a scaffold first-line supervisor, I used to harp on the crew to install diagonal bracing both horizontally and vertically on the structures. “The strength is in the triangles,” I’d tell them. You’ll read that phrase again on future articles, I guarantee it. I’ve probably driven home the big hazard in earthquake response enough—structural collapse, or damage that will eventually lead to it. What else will you need to look out for?

How about the integrity of the ground itself? Potholes will become sinkholes. Entire roads will break and sink, leaving a ledge you can drive off if you’re not paying attention. In 2018, this viral video showed us a car that had done just that during the 7.2 quake in Alaska. Other things that will literally undermine (the actual meaning of that term) the ground will be broken water and sewage lines. And where the ground doesn’t break, those broken lines will flood the streets. Broken gas lines combined with arcing electrical lines will start structure fires. Windows will be shaken out of their buildings—bad in an apartment building, and horribly unimaginable in a skyscraper. Cell towers, billboards, business signs and trees will topple like dominos. Brick and other façade materials will crumble and fall off of buildings and demolish the sidewalks below, along with anything on them.

Notice the additional shoring on the left. They’re attempting to stabilize the structure from the forces of the demolition. “The strength is in the triangles.” And you just know some jack-wad said, “Hey, can I move my car from under there?”

This is probably the crux of what makes earthquakes so damn scary—when you’re outside, they say, “Don’t run inside!” And when you’re inside, they say, “Don’t run outside!” Lastly, just remember the aftershocks. Though they’re almost always less severe, they can be quite devastating themselves. If you start crawling through rubble looking for your loved ones, you’ll need to take extra precautions, as you’ll most likely become one of the round-two victims after the first aftershock. There will be jagged metal, broken glass, falling debris, pockets of built up gas that can suffocate, and collapses that are ticking time-bombs-of-collapse waiting to happen. We’ll discuss those things to do and remember as the series progresses.

This is a scary topic for our tykes. I urge you to get this awesome earthquake safety book geared toward 3 to 8 year olds, Tummy Rumble Quake, by Heather Beal.


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