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June 04, 2006

Earthquake Hits and Misses

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I wonder how many places on Earth are not at risk from the dark side of nature.

I do know that every place I've lived has had a downside ranging from difficult weather to living with the possibility of disaster.

Here in the Puget Sound area disaster can strike in the form of earthquakes. (We also have volcanoes. I suppose I should assemble a post about my doings the day Mt. St. Helens blew out its side.)

There have been four major Puget Sound area earthquakes in my lifetime. Although I resided in the area when each happened, I only experienced two of them: I'll explain below.

For what it's worth, two of the big quakes occurred in February, the other two in April.

I was six when the 6.3 magnitude 14 February 1946 quake struck. It happened in the evening. My mother was away at a school function and my father hustled us under the doorway frame between the living room and the kitchen. I remember the house getting a good shake, but that was it. Nobody was killed.

The next large earthquake I experienced was the 29 April 1965 6.5 magnitude event where at least three were killed.

I was in grad school and stopped by the frat house that morning to kill some time. We heard a rumble and the building started to shake slightly. At first I wondered if there was furnace trouble. The shaking quickly got worse and we knew it was a quake. Then we did the "wrong" thing -- rushed out of the building. But I took care to glance up to be sure bricks weren't starting to fall.

Safely on the front lawn, I felt the ground under my feet moving in a kind of wave motion; one of my feet seemed to be raised while the other was lowered.

This sensation was familiar. The previous summer I had spent a couple of weeks on a troop ship crossing the Pacific following a tour of duty in the Far East. When the ship was in motion, I was constantly adjusting my leg muscles to the roll and pitch of the deck. So when I stepped ashore, my muscles continued to make their regular, rhythmic adjustments. The sensation was that of the ground moving beneath my feet.

Well, when the earthquake struck, I felt that same motion, but this time it was real.

The most severe quake was the 7.1 magnitude event of 13 April 1949 which claimed eight lives. I was on my way to a downtown movie with my Cub Scout den. We were in a city bus that had just pulled up in front of the theater (for Seattle fans, it was the Orpheum, where the Westin Hotel now stands) when the quake hit.

Those of us in the bus never felt the quake.

The reason we didn't feel the quake was because the suspension of the bus absorbed the shock. Sitting there, I could see traffic lights swinging to and fro. Then a wooden water tank atop a department store burst and water poured over the edge of the roof. And of course there was commotion on the streets around us.

We 9-10 year-olds were fortunate. Had the earthquake hit 15 minutes or an hour later, we would have been in a darkened, swaying theater -- a seriously scary experience. As it was, the quake marked the end of our outing: no movie that day for us.

The most recent major (6.8 magnitude) Puget Sound area earthquake took place 28 February 2001. Nobody was killed, but many older buildings suffered considerable structural damage. Columns around the dome of the state capitol "walked" out of position. (For an unknown reason these columns were never secured; they simply stood there. Yet they didn't budge when the more severe 1949 quake hit -- and both quakes were centered near Olympia.)

Where was I? I was more than 30,000 feet above western South Dakota on my way to Washington, DC to examine pre-release data from the recently-completed 2000 Census.

I got word of the quake from people using those telephones mounted on seatbacks. The word spread up and down the aisles: Big quake in Seattle. A dozen dead. Windowglass popping off skyscrapers and shattering on the sidewalks below. Many stories, not so many actually true.

As soon as I landed at Dulles I phoned home, visualizing my home office as a sea of books spilled from toppled bookcases. My son reported no damage at all even though we lived perhaps 15 miles from the epicenter.

My day job office didn't fare so well. My group was on the fourth floor of an 80-year-old building. Apparently it was a confused, scary descent down the stairwell for my co-workers. Computer monitors "walked" off desks. Bookcases toppled. I had a couple hours of cleanup work when I returned from the Census Bureau a few days later.

Seattle Earthquake Gallery

First & Yesler after 49 quake.jpg
1949 Earthquake, Old-Seattle Damage.
This is near the corner of First and Yesler, heart of Skid Road (literally a logging mill skid in the 19th century). It was an old, ratty area in 1949, but was spiffed up a bit by the 70s.

Green Lake after 49 quake.jpg
1949 Earthquake, Green Lake Fissures.
Okay, so it wasn't the earth opening and swallowing entire buildings. But there were cracks in the ground in Woodland Park southwest of Green Lake. I biked over and took a look at these fissures a few weeks after the above photo was taken.

Union Station after 65 quake.jpg
1965 Earthquake, Union Station Area Damage.
Union Station (now converted to non-railroad uses) is built on fill-land not far from Pioneer Square, subject of the top photo. The sidewalk seems to have been built atop a structure, not on solid ground.

Jackson St after 01 quake.jpg
2001 Earthquake, Damage in Old Seattle.
More damage in the same general area as the old Seattle pictures shown above. This area suffered in part because buildings are mostly old, predating most 20th century earthquake codes (though by 2001, some had been retrofitted). Another factor is that flat land in the area was partly or entirely fill, an unstable base should a quake strike.

Earthquakes -- especially strong ones -- can be scary. You know that a strong enough quake that continues long enough can bring down most structures. And, when one is underway, you don't know when it will cease. Or if there will be aftershocks.

Just as well my batting average for major quakes is only 500.

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at June 4, 2006




Comments

In Portland we felt those first two quakes -- I'm a year older than Donald. About 1994 or '95 we got a pretty good jolt early in the morning. I was already dressed for work, but the apartment building was mostly young folks who rushed into the hall. We got to see what everyone wore to bed: mostly old sweats. No la-de-da nightgowns and no one nude.

In Helena, MT, one feels little quakes all the time. Sometimes they only involve a few blocks. I heard one coming, felt it going underneath the old brick building, and then disappearing off in the distance.

When Mt. St. Helens blew, I was in Chicago in seminary. My granddaughter had just died and they called to tell me while the mountain was still erupting. The two events seemed connected.

The Vanport Flood in Portland was devastating in terms of property and changed the demographics of the city forever in a very unplanned way. The 1964 flood here on the Blackfeet Reservation killed more than thirty and also rearranged the population in fateful ways: the people who had lived in little shacks in Heart Butte, closest under one of the three dams that broke, moved to Browning. Years later, when the gumbo roads were finally paved, everyone moved back out to Heart Butte -- still feeling it was home -- in such numbers that we had to start a high school.

They say that we are overdue on the northern East Slope of the Rockies for a catastrophic landscape-changing earthquake, the kind that threw up the Rockies in the first place. At the laundromat last week I had a disaster conversation with a man seven-feet-tall who helped build the Hanford Reactor -- which is why he moved over here, to escape the slow radioactive plume that is traveling towards the Columbia River and Portland.

But I guess I'll stay on my diet anyway.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on June 4, 2006 7:07 PM



The History Channel is running a show on worst case scenarios for natural disasters called Mega Disasters. Two of the episodes focused on the Pacific Northwest; one about a potential Mt. Rainier eruption and the other on a NW coast tsunami. With all the snow and ice, the mudflows from Rainier will be quite nasty in some areas. The tsunami will be much worse. According to geographical evidence on the coast, massive coastal earthquakes along the Juan De Fuca Plate followed by tsunami hit the NW coast every 200-500 years followed by a long quite period. The last such incident took place in the 18th century so we are due for another one.

Posted by: AP on June 4, 2006 7:26 PM



A 1955 flood in the city of Waterbury, Connecticut (where I lived until 1997, though the flood happened before I was born) has to be one of the few natural disasters that actually *saved* money for the taxpayers. The state had been planning to build a new limited access highway along the Naugatuck River through Waterbury. Building the new highway was going to be a costly venture as it would be necessary to condemn a good deal of commercial and residential property along the riverbanks.
Along came the flood, and many of the riverside structures were destroyed. Which meant that when the state acquired the properties a few years later to start highway construction, it cost many millions of dollars less than it would have cost had the structures not been destroyed.

Posted by: Peter on June 4, 2006 9:32 PM



Peter,

Yet people continue to build alongside rivers. :sigh:

I've lost count of the number of earthquakes I've known. We tend to get more, but they're not as strong. A 5.8 is the worst I've experienced, I think.

We do have a fault running through downtown San Diego. Known as the Rose Canyon Fault (for Rose Canyon), it's a "branch" of the San Andreas.

You see, as plates move against each other, however they do it, the plate edges tend to crumble. Like a pair of cakes rubbed against one another. On occasion a "branch" fault with cause a minor quake. We've experienced a few of those. The Rose Canyon Fault has not produced a quake since I've lived here.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on June 4, 2006 11:51 PM



I had no idea the Northwest was so unstable. Mt. St. Helens, sure -- but I had no idea Rainier might blow, or that earthquakes happen so regularly. That's some serious damage in those photos.

I've only felt one earthquake myself, although I've spent more than a year in California. We were in Santa Barbara, and a 6 (or so) hit about 100 miles away. We felt it, though. Your description is very accurate about the sensation. It reminded me of being on a skateboard -- kind of fun but scary and impossible to control. Or as though the firm ground suddenly turned to jello. Pool water sloshed around, chandeliers swung, walls moved some ... A lesson in how what seems to be fixed can come un-fixed mighty fast.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 4, 2006 11:55 PM



In the ten years I lived in San Francisco, I experienced two earthquakes: 1984 and 1989. I was in a downtown skyscraper for the first one, but it was only a 6.4. But in 1989, I had just returned from the East Bay when the big 7.5 quake struck. By only two hours I missed the collapse of the Oakland freeway and the collapse of the two large sections on the Bay Bridge, having previously traversed both. My UPS deliveryman was killed. When the quake struck, I was sitting at my computer. Because of the violent rocking of the building, I could not get out of my chair. My wife was in the shower. When the shaking stopped, we rushed out of the apartment to see if there was any damage. None for us, but just down the street from us in the Marina, entire buildings had come down. Later in the day, we walked down to the Marina to see the damage. We took some amazing photos. There were still people trapped in buildings, one of which was beginning to burn. Even a year later, things were still not back to normal.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 5, 2006 7:41 AM



As much as people worry about snow in the Upstate, NY area, I've had only one day in 10 years that I couldn't get out of my driveway...and that was mostly 'cause I didn't feeling putting in the extra effort. But, I can live without the earthquakes, tornados and hurricaines. :)

Posted by: Spoonman on June 5, 2006 8:00 AM



It sounds incredible, but I believe (correct me on this if I'm wrong) that the worst earthquake the experts think will hit the country will be in the heartland, not far from St. Louis.

Posted by: ricpic on June 5, 2006 11:13 AM



I went to college in St. Louis and took a certain amount of pride in the meteorological and seismic horribleness of the region.

It was ridiculously hot and humid in the summer and nasty-damp cold in the winter. We had tornados aplenty (one touched down fifteen blocks from my apartment) and floods regularly.

I'm not aware of any volcanic activity in the area and, of course, hurricanes weren't a problem, but otherwise, if it was dangerous and unpleasent, we had it.

The most powerful earthquake in the history of the lower 48 took place in New Madrid, Missouri, just a couple hundred miles away.

My only experience in this line was when I was awakened by a shower of tchotchkes from the shelves above. This was the era of waterbeds and I wasn't really scared until I remembered I wasn't in one. There was someone else there, however, who shouldn't have been there, so the whole thing had a kind of Old Testiment flavor for me.

Posted by: Sluggo on June 5, 2006 11:34 AM



I'm a little surprised, in the discussions of earthquakes nobody talks about the aftershocks.

I was living about 10 miles away from the epicenter when the 1994 Northridge quake hit. It didn't damage my house, much, except for a cinderblock wall in the back yard. Of course, I'll never forget the quake itself, when I awoke out of a dream of locomotives to realize that the noise was the window next to my bed rattling, jumped to my feet, realized it was a quake, got down the hall and got the kids out of bed, and huddled under the doorway to my house. (Subjectively that felt like a couple minutes, but I've heard estimates that were much shorter in time.) Ostensibly it was only a 6.7 quake, but apparently it had the greatest ground-acceleration (1g) measured in an urban area. Let's just say my whole neighborhood was quite active for the next few hours (the quake hit at 4:30 a.m.) Unlike Mary's experience, some of my neighbors were wearing some pretty frilly nightwear, and there were more than a few men in boxers walking around the streets with flashlights, seeing if anybody needed help.

But the worst part, all things considered, was the fairly constant aftershocks that continued over the next few days. Some were quite strong--I remember standing next to my car, seeing it rock back and forth about six inches, and realizing that it was actually the driveway that was oscillating. Also, you could hear the aftershakes coming towards you in a wave of rattling window glass.

The second night (40 or so hours) after the quake, after I had dispatched the rest of the family to my in-laws while I hunkered down to keep my business running, I was taking a bath to calm down. (Fortunately, I hadn't been able to turn my gas off during the quake, the gasline hadn't burst into flames, and I still had hot water.) A big aftershock came rumbling through, and as I watched the water splash out of the tub, I yelled, "Okay, enough is enough!"

This was monumentally silly, even for me, but I mention it to show that, psychologically, it's not the quake that gets to you but the aftermath. It's very nerve-wracking, for a creature of habit like myself, to have all of one's habitual routines disrupted.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 5, 2006 4:45 PM



Yup, the aftershocks will kill you. That period is always so nervewracking, what with the tv people telling you that the original big earthquake might have just been a prequel and all. I tend to yell during an earthquake too, along the lines of "Okay, STOP now! Enough! We get it!!"

I don't spend a lot of time worrying about them; the only way it affected my life is that when my son was small, I made the decision that living in the Bay Area, I could never work on the other side of a bridge from where he was in school or daycare, so that limited our options to San Francisco itself or the Peninsula. I didn't care how long the walk would take me; in the event of a disaster I just wanted to be able to get home to my kid.

Posted by: missgrundy on June 6, 2006 11:05 AM






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