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What Do Local Earthquake Experts Think About 'The Big One?'

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Image: Derek Erdman

A few days removed from that New Yorker article on the impending earthquake that will eventually hit the Pacific Northwest and we're all still a little shaken, pun intended. Three local experts on seismic activity decided it was the perfect time to hold a Reddit AMA to answer everyone's pressing questions. Here's some of the highlights from that chat wit Pacific Northwest Seismic Network director John Vidale, Seattle's Emergency Management Office's Debbie Goetz and Seattle Times science writer & author Sandi Doughton.

Were there any inaccuracies in the article?

Vidale: Overall, it was a well-written and documented article. The scenario left an impression of much greater devastation that is anticipated to occur, however...Communications may black out, transportation may grind to a halt, stores conceivably could run out of goods for a while, but that doesn't constitute "toast" in one's mind. The speaker must have been referring to some aspect of those problems, not to smoking rubble.

Which Seattle buildings would fall if "the big one" hit?

Doughton: Almost half the tall buildings in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver BC were built before anyone knew we could get this kind of megaquake in the Northwest. It wouldn't surprise anyone if some of those older buildings collapsed in a major quake. Newer skyscrapers are much better designed, but under current building codes, all they have to do is NOT collapse. If the building is completely unusable after the quake, that's fine per current codes…. The Space Needle was built with redundant support systems and the heaviest steel available. I'm betting on it to survive.

Should people stay away from Seattle?

Doughton: I live here, and I personally wouldn't advise anyone to stay away from this beautiful region because of earthquake risks. Some things you might consider when choosing a house: A newer home will be built to stricter codes; if you choose an older home, make sure the house is bolted to the foundation; avoid steep slopes; look for something on solid ground, not fill or loose soil. (You can find geologic maps of the area, or hire an engineer to advise you.)

How can Seattleites prepare and reinforce our homes?

Goetz: We expect most of our homes and structures to fare relatively well, especially if you are a wood-frame construction. For condos, there are other ways to reinforce the structure – it's worth having a structural engineer do an assessment. Check with your homeowner's association. For homeowners, especially for homes built before around 1980, bolting the house to the foundation through seismic retrofit will help it survive.

Will Seattle ever truly be prepared for this?

Vidale: We are currently testing earthquake early warning in the Pacific Northwest, in fact I have it on my phone now. It needs more testing and full funding before it is ready to be released to the public, however.

Goetz: Yes, there are several plans in place and in development, including a Mitigation Plan, a Recovery Framework. Here is a web link for the City's plans:… Also, Seattle did extensive work as part of a Regional Catastrophic Planning Effort. All of those plans are on the State of Washington's web page:

Do you think people in the Seattle region will prepare following this article

Doughton: Human nature is the same everywhere. Some will pay attention and get prepared, others won't. We all need to press our state and local governments to improve infrastructure so the region will be able to recover more quickly.
· We are earthquake experts. Ask us anything... [Reddit]
· Did The New Yorker's Earthquake Article Scare the Crap Out of You or What? [CS]

Space Needle

400 Broad Street, , WA 98109