Earth Under Threat of the Really Big One
“You pick your tragedy and aim for that. I chose earthquake.”
When the foreman called me down to the basement, he put on a grave face, a we-found-something-expensive face. “You can see here where the wood’s been eaten away.” He poked at the frame that supported our house, bits of 110-year-old lumber falling away beneath his fingers. “It’s like this through the whole basement. So the question is, do you want us to reframe it, or just cover it up with the shear walls and you go back in to rebuild it later?”
We had hired a seismic retrofitting company to make our house earthquake-safe. The workers discovered that the house was supported by little more than wood shavings and a century of dirt. When the interior basement walls were torn out, they revealed wood rot throughout the framing of the full-size basement, and only one functional support beam for the entire left side of the house. It would cost another two thousand or three thousand dollars in lumber and labor to repair, but the work clearly needed to be done. I gave the go-ahead to make the necessary repairs.
Four months earlier, blithely unaware of the compromised state of the wood frame that supported me, I’d read Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker article, “The Really Big One,” about the massive earthquake that is statistically poised to level the Pacific Northwest ANY DAY NOW. The information in Schulz’s article wasn’t new to me, but she presented it in a terrifyingly succinct way that hit home like previous articles hadn’t. I met Schulz two years earlier at a summer cocktail party at a home on Portland’s Willamette River. Smart and calm, she appeared absolutely at ease in a somewhat keyed-up crowd of writers and editors. She talked about splitting her time between New York and Portland, about how her ideal life would have her in Oregon for six months every year to camp, ride her bike, and climb mountains.
According to Schulz’s article, the Pacific Northwest is 315 years into a 243-year cycle of catastrophic earthquakes. That is, based on the average occurrence of massive earthquakes in the region over the past ten thousand years, we are overdue. Way overdue . When the next very big one hits, FEMA estimates that nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, a million will be displaced, and another 2.5 million will have shelter but be left without food and water. Older, unreinforced buildings—and there are many of them, including schools—will collapse. Ditto for most of the region’s numerous bridges. Liquefaction of the soil will be a problem for even structurally resilient buildings. Steel girders don’t do much to help when the soil a building sits on turns to liquid. After reading the article, I could imagine Schulz sitting me down and patiently explaining that her feelings about living in Oregon had changed, and that my husband and I had made a grave error in leaving Brooklyn for Portland in 2007.
I am prone to panic. I’ve struggled with anxiety for years. But I wasn’t the only person in the Pacific Northwest who panicked in response to that article. Every seismic retrofitting company I called had been inundated with requests for estimates in the weeks after it was published. It took me a month to get an appointment for an initial evaluation. Portland had read the article, and we were scared. There was a comfort in that, to have my fear validated, to be in such good company in my anxiety.
“By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded,” Schulz wrote, “the region will be unrecognizable. Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA’s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, ‘Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.’”
Our house sits nineteen blocks east of I-5. Does that mean that we should expect to be toast, too? Or would our neighborhood sit on the charred edge, just barely spared from complete annihilation? What was the margin of error? Math had never seemed so imprecise and threatening.
“We have to move!” I told my husband. It felt wildly irresponsible to keep our kids in the path of certain doom. I suggested we move east of the Cascade mountains, well outside of the quake zone, to Enterprise, Oregon, maybe, or La Grande—far, far away from the possibility of collapsing bridges and liquefying soil and months or years without running water or electricity post-disaster. We would move to the beautiful Wallowa mountains! We would be safe from earthquakes!
Wildfires swept across eastern Oregon, Washington, and Idaho the very next week, and slapped us both awake. My husband and I had moved to Portland from our native New York City, where we’d both lived through 9/11. A few years after we’d left, Hurricane Sandy hit and promised not to be a freak storm but a facet of the new normal thanks to climate change. If we moved to the Midwest, there would be flooding and tornados. Wherever we went, there would be something waiting to kill us. There isn’t a safe place to move; there is only the illusion of safety. You can’t plan for everything, so you pick your tragedy and aim for that. I chose earthquake. We decided to stay in Portland, and to make preparations for whatever might come our way. I stocked the basement with water and canned food, with first aid supplies. I bought hand-crank flashlights. I called seismic retrofitters.
Tim was a big, earnest guy with an unflappable demeanor that I found reassuring in a seismic engineer. He was friendly, upbeat. And why not? Business was booming. “You read that article?” he asked me as I led him down to the basement to assess our foundation. And then he knocked on the wood slats of the basement wall. “Cripple walls,” he said. “These will pancake in an earthquake.”
It wouldn’t be a simple matter of bolting our house to the foundation, a job my research showed would cost us between two thousand and three thousand dollars. The concrete in our basement only went up to ground level, with the rest of the height of the walls constructed of wood. That construction choice—a money-saving shortcut when the house was built in 1905—was the cause of our rotten frame; wood had been touching dirt for all those years.
We didn’t know about the wood rot on the day of the initial evaluation. All the engineer could see was those cripple walls that needed to be reinforced with plywood shear walls to withstand the shaking. Then the house could be bolted to the shear walls. That brought the price tag up to seven thousand dollars, a significant chunk of our emergency savings. But if we didn’t do it, my husband and I and our two children would be flattened as our house collapsed on top of us. We signed on to get the work done, and were scheduled for a start date three months later, which was the very soonest they could begin. I crossed my fingers that the earthquake would hold off that long. I made more lists. I stockpiled more jugs of water, more cans of beans. I hoped.
The seismic retrofit work began. Our yard filled with debris. The connection pipe to the water main broke when the workers were taking the old walls off, leaving us without running water for a day. Then came the news that the only way to make the shear walls in the front and back of the house seismically sound—the sole point of installing them—was to cover our basement windows completely rather than go around them as originally planned. You can’t argue with math and physics. You can only sigh and agree to turn your basement into a plywood box devoid of sunlight and the possibility of fresh air. At the end of the workday, and without explanation, I found the basement door hanging off its hinges.
To avoid rot in the new framing, the contractor advised us to dig the soil away from the foundation in the front of the house. When my husband started digging, the main water pipe into the house—apparently quite old and looking for an excuse to break—cracked, flooding the front yard. That left us without running water for a full week while our plumber tried to coordinate with the city to get the repairs done. We used the emergency water I’d bought in case of the earthquake. We wrote the plumber a check for $2500. Meanwhile, the work in the basement continued. It all felt like a cascade of tiny disasters set off to ensure a basement full of workers and an empty bank account for eternity. But we were making our house safer for our children. We were doing what we needed to do to protect them. I hung on to that and bought more jugs of water.
We get our vegetables from a small, family-run local farm and from our own backyard garden; we get our eggs from our own backyard chickens; we limit groceries to organic choices to the extent that our budget allows; we used to buy all of our meat in bulk from a local family farm, filling a chest freezer in the basement; for several years, I made all of our jam from organic berries we picked over the summer; I baked all of the bread we ate, made all of our tortillas by hand, made yogurt, and fermented pickles and sauerkraut: All of these activities left little time for anything else, and in fact proved nearly impossible to keep up once our second child was born.
It wasn’t until I’d let the bread-baking and jam-making slide that I recognized that my main motivation for controlling our family’s food supply so closely was my fervent desire to protect myself and my family from catastrophe. I wanted us to eat the healthiest food I could provide, and I wanted to know the precise source whenever possible, because if I could control what was going into our bodies I could control what happened to those bodies. I could ward off death by E. coli, by salmonella, by cancer or heart attack. So that the four of us might never die, so that we might always be well and together, without suffering and loss. I wanted to death-proof my family.
I know where this comes from. My father died at fifty of a heart attack. On 9/11, I was crossing the Manhattan Bridge on the Q train just after the first plane hit, and I saw too much, and fully expected to die that day. A few years later I was in labor with my firstborn for four days, and he and I were both in distress toward the end and required an emergency c-section. You feed your kid packaged, pre-washed spinach that you can’t possibly know is tainted with E. coli and your child dies. Your husband rides his bike to work, as mine does every day, and gets sideswiped by a car. Your city is demolished by a massive earthquake. I am acquainted with sudden, unexpected death, and it is my most fundamental fear: the fear that shapes me, that would define me if I allowed it.
So I grow my own spinach. I make sure my husband wears his helmet and has lights on his bike. I spent the bulk of our emergency savings to seismically upgrade our house. But the anxiety is still there, no matter how many safeguards I put in place, no matter how much logic I feed it.
Our house is theoretically safer now, but we live in a larger world than that. If the earthquake hits while I’m driving with the kids in the car, what should I do? If it hits when my husband is at work across the river and the kids are at school, what should I do? If it hits when we’re home together, what should we do? If it hits when we’re all together in an open field . . . ? Oh please let it hit when we’re all together in an open field . . .
But even that mental preparation is a trick meant to grant me the illusion of control over the uncontrollable. A month after the retrofit was completed, my daughter went swimming in the school pool with her kindergarten class. Another kid pushed her out into the deep end and she went under and had to be rescued by the lifeguard. She was scared, but physically okay. Still, I barely slept that night. I tucked her into bed next to me and watched her for signs of secondary drowning. Our emergency fund was gone, our basement was a windowless cell, and our daughter could have died anyway.
After Schulz’s article won the Pulitzer Prize, a second wave of people read it—folks who might have missed it the first time around because it didn’t affect them directly. I had to field quite a few breathless tweets and texts from East Coast friends who were terrified for me, and thought me a fool for not immediately running back to New York.
“You live on top of a toxic oil spill in Greenpoint ,” I wanted to say to one Brooklyn friend.
“Your house is going to be underwater as the sea levels continue to rise,” I wanted to tell another on the Jersey shore.
To all of them: “You could get hit by a bus. You could slip in the shower and hit your head. You could choke on a pretzel and die, alone in your living room. The last thing you see might be The Bachelor on your TV screen.”
I stand by the decision to retrofit the house; it was a logical response to a real danger, and we’re fortunate to have been able to afford to take those safety measures. I stand by the jugs of water in the basement, the cans of food, the hand-crank flashlights. But the fear? That’s not useful, and it’s not going to keep us safe. The Really Big One could hit Portland today, or it could wait another two hundred years. We’ve prepared ourselves as best we can, and now we’re going to live our lives for however much more time we get. And may that be a long time indeed, and may we all do it happily and together, and may my daughter never again be in a swimming pool with the kid who pushed her into the deep end.