Thanks to a live feed from KHON in Hawaii, we were able to watch as the
tsunami from yesterday's massive earthquake in Chile reached Hilo
Harbor. It was anti-climatic; the waves were smaller than feared, and
there was no significant damage to the Hawaiian Islands or any of the
rim nations that were exposed.
But it was, for all of that, a jaw dropping site. The KHON camera was on
a little bluff, about fifty feet above the high tide mark, and focused
on a tiny island on the south shore of Hilo Bay, about 150 feet wide and
300 feet long, with three structures on it, and connected to shore by a
pedestrian walkway. The channel of water between the little islet and
shore was perhaps 75 feet wide and maybe five feet deep at high tide.
The channel itself was normally virtually still, protected from waves
and current, and affected only by the slow twice-a-day rhythm of the
tides. Even those were minor—one of the TV commentators mentions that
the normal tidal variation was about three feet.
The first pulse of the tsunami was fashionably late, and imperceptible
to the watching television camera. The swell was about 10cm, or four
But then, quietly, it became more dramatic. Three more larger swells
came in, about fifteen minutes apart, and we watched, fascinated, as the
water slowly rose and fell. It was like watching the tides in
stop-motion film. Part of the fascination lay in not knowing how high
the water might go. Would the little island be inundated? (It wasn't).
But part was the inexorable rise and fall, so much like the tides.
With one exception. There were reefs at the end of the little channel,
and the channel itself turned, briefly, into a very short salt-water
river. As the water rushed back and forth, it became white water, and
that placid little channel became, briefly, like a mountain stream
during snow melt. The water lifted to the lip of the island, the high
tide mark, and dropped in minutes to expose the reefs and the mud flats
that made up the bottom of the channel.
There are places, like Canada's Bay of Fundy, where the tides are steep
enough to cause white water. But they are rare, and tourist attractions
because they are so odd.
Everyone was relieved at how small and well-behaved the tsunamis were.
Nobody got flooded, cities weren't destroyed, Hilo Bay wasn't reduced to
a mud flat with a glinting in the sun subsiding like the life in the
eyes of the trapped and suffocating fish, limned by a beautiful and
doomed shore. Tokyo lives on to be a backdrop to rubber monsters and
For all the lack of cinematic drama, it was an impressive demonstration
of the incredible power an earthquake can have. At 8.8, yesterday's
earthquake immediately off the short of Chile was the fifth-largest in
recorded history. It was about 950 times more powerful than the
earthquake that flattened Port-au-Prince, and 1,500 times more powerful
than the biggest earthquake I ever experienced in my years in Southern
California. And nearly 40 years later, I still have vivid memories of
that little quake, the Sylmar Earthquake.
I watched the images from Chile itself and gained a new respect for
Chile. The damage looked more like Northridge than Port-au-Prince.
When American media covers a catastrophe like Port-au-Prince, there's a
certain smugness. America, we are told, has good building codes and a
general lack of corruption, which means that the horror that made a
moderate earthquake into a charnel house in Haiti couldn't happen here.
Some Americans even openly sneered at Haiti, saying they brought it on
themselves. It's an attitude of supreme, if unwitting hypocrisy, given
the role of America historically in Haitian economic affairs. They
aren't just poor because they're poor, and they didn't have shoddy
building codes because that's what they chose.
That smugness was absent yesterday. Perhaps it's because the first
reporters there were in the earthquake itself and had a first hand
appreciation for the power of the quake. In one image shown widely, a
bloc of apartments is literally ripped in half by the quake, but both
halves are still standing , which allowed the vast majority of residents
to get out safely.
To be sure, the shaking in Chile wasn't over 900 times as strong as what
hit Port-au-Prince. Not only were the major cities hundreds of miles
from the epicenter, but it was also a deep fracture, some 22 miles down,
compared to a shallow 8 miles for poor Haiti.
But it was still one hell of a big earthquake, no matter how you slice
it, and the damage in Chile, while extensive, is a testament to the
building codes and just plain common sense with which Chileans
approached the volatility of their long, narrow land.
The Chilean people themselves reacted splendidly. Even as the ground was
shaking, cameras recorded fright, but no panic. People moved swiftly to
get out of harm's way, and then immediately began helping those who
didn't make it.
Thirty-six hours later, and the official death toll is still only 300,
and quite possibly won't be over 1,000. Nearly two million people are
homeless, and the images show why; in the cities, at least, the major
apartment complexes took damage enough that they will have to be
bulldozed, but they remained standing, even if leaning at a thirty
degree angle, or, as mention, literally ripped in half.
Which begs the question: would an American city do as well? In recent
years, there have only been two moderate earthquakes in California to go
by, the Northridge quake in LA in 1994, and the Loma Prieta quake in
1989. We didn't do all that well, given that both quakes were smaller
(6.7 and 6.9 respectively) than the Port-au-Prince quake. The death toll
wasn't that high, but the property damage was a lot worse than anyone
expected. Even Kobe, which has the ultra-strict building codes that the
Japanese have had since the end of the war, lost 5,500 people and had
nearly half a trillion dollars in damage from a 6.9 earthquake.
How would Los Angeles and San Francisco do if they had an 8.8 earthquake?
Well, fortunately, we probably won't need to find out, in all
likelihood. For all the reputation the area has for earthquakes,
California isn't really at serious risk for a monster like the one that
hit Chile. They could get an 8.0, which would be about 40 times stronger
than Northridge but at least 28 times less severe than what an 8.8 would
pack. The Bay Area and LA are unlikely to see anything bigger than about
7.6, although there is a possibility. Even a 7.6 could kill thousands
and cause trillions in damage.
Unfortunately, there is a part of the country that not only can expect
an earthquake as big as what hit Chile, but should. And truth in
advertising: I'm living in that part of the country.
The Chile quake was what is called a “megathrust” earthquake, a type
that occurs only in subduction zones, where one crustal plate is
blodging under another. Chile, as a result, is one of the most
seismically active areas on earth, and had the largest earthquake ever
recorded, a 9.5 monster, in 1960.
For the US and Canada, the Cascadia subduction zone is the loaded gun
pointed at our heads. It is where the Juan de Fuca plate slides under
the North American plate, a configuration identical to the subduction
zone alongside Chile.
We know that on the evening of January 26th, 1700, an earthquake
estimated at between 8.7 and 9.2 occurred there. We know that, not
because the local tribes remembered it (although they most certainly
did!), but because the next day, much of Tokyo washed away in a giant
tsunami that dwarfed the 2004 event. We also know that the top part of
the adjoining subduction zone to the north caused the 9.2 Good Friday
earthquake in 1964 in Alaska. It, too, was a megathrust quake, and as a
rule, all earthquakes above about 8.4 are of that type.
The major cities at risk are Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC.,
along, of course, with everyone else in the region, stretching from
about Santa Rosa on the south end to the Aleutian Islands at the other.
So I'm sitting here at ground zero, 310 years, one month, and two days
later, and wondering when the other shoe will drop. Mount Shasta,
sitting peacefully under a blanket of snow, is a silent testimony to the
power of the subduction zone, which caused Mount Shasta – and all the
other volcanoes in the Cascade Range – to happen in the first place.
About 18 months ago, there was an unnerving swarm of earthquakes out
beyond the subduction zone in the Pacific Plate. There were about 600
discrete earthquakes, and they didn't follow any known pattern to
earthquake swarms. Usually, there's a main earthquake, followed by a
generally diminishing series of aftershocks. In this case, the quakes
were of a like intensity, and ended as mysteriously as they began,
centered in the Pacific plate, where earthquakes shouldn't be happening.
Seismologists said it sounding like grinding more than like slippage.
By itself, it was harmless. No tsunamis, and nobody onshore even felt a
But given the nature of the subduction zone, and the damage it can do,
it was as ominous as the sound of a gun being cocked.
Chile got hammered, and did much better than people might have
reasonably hoped for. Although with two million people displaced, they
face a monumental task.
When our turn comes – and it will – will we do as well?