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Hurricane Maria has cut off access to drinking water, sewage, electricity and telecommunications across the U.S. commonwealth. Here’s why Seattle or L.A. might end up being the next San Juan.
SEATTLE — Here in the Pacific Northwest’s largest city, Puerto Rico is just about as far away as you can get in the United States—Alaska and Hawaii are closer than the far-away U.S. commonwealth, home to 3.4 million people.
The disaster that has followed Hurricane Maria may seem incredibly distant for residents of the West Coast, but anyone who lives in or is involved in emergency management in Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington state should be paying very close attention to the difficult logistics nightmare that has been playing out thousands of miles to the southeast.
Why? They could be next.
Although the West Coast’s disaster landscape doesn’t include ferocious hurricanes that states along the eastern seaboard and Gulf of Mexico often face this time of year, a catastrophic earthquake can have similar impacts in terms of damage to property and infrastructure.
The current hurricane disaster response and recovery challenges in Puerto Rico are multifaceted.
Food, medicine and drinking water are in short supply. Power is out across the vast majority of the island thanks to Maria’s winds destroying the electricity grid. Telecommunications, including cellphone service is extremely spotty, due to damaged infrastructure and equipment. Many people on the U.S. mainland trying to reach friends and loved ones on the island have had major trouble since most cellphone service has been knocked offline. Many roads are impassable. Gas is in short supply and there haven’t been enough truck drivers available to bring supplies from San Juan’s port to communities lucky to have not been totally isolated from the outside world—many rural areas and towns in the mountains haven’t been heard from.
Some reports indicate that the official death toll is extremely low and doesn’t reflect the number of bodies in stacking morgues or have been buried in common graves. Hundreds are feared dead on the island.
While Puerto Rico didn’t experience a major earthquake with Hurricane Maria, a regional seismic disaster on the West Coast could bring severe disruptions to public services and supply chains, creating significant challenges for first responders and emergency managers trying to get help to those who need it most.
President Trump has said the Puerto Rico response is challenging because of the island commonwealth’s geography, “surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.” While Trump was dinged for his comments, in one sense, the president is correct is saying that bringing in aid and relief to Puerto Rico is more difficult because of the island’s isolation. Major questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the federal response to Hurricane Maria and the crisis in Puerto Rico. (Trump’s criticism of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, who has been trying to call greater attention to the grave situation in Puerto Rico, hasn’t helped matters.)
As I documented in “The Geography of Disaster Risk and Resiliency in America,” a Route Fifty ebook released this summer, geographic isolation is a challenge for the West Coast, too, thanks to mountain ranges and limited road connections linking the interior to major ports and population centers closer to the coast, like Seattle.
In the Pacific Northwest, the next magnitude 9.0 megaquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the coast of far Northern California, Oregon and Washington state, is the disaster that emergency managers are dreading and trying to prepare for as best they can. When it will strike is an unknown, but such a significant future seismic event is unavoidable.
For places like Seattle and Portland, Oregon there are few roads through the Cascade Range. It will take days, if not weeks, to clear a safe route through the vulnerable mountain passes, meaning that needed incoming relief supplies and aid will be limited until those vital links are restored.
Residents have been urged to expand their preparations to include supplies for two weeks, not just a few days has had been previously recommended. Not enough residents have taken the necessary precautions.
Aqueducts carrying water supplies to cities will be damaged. Power transmission and telecommunications lines will be hobbled and destroyed. Roads will be impassible. While Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and other West Coast cities are not built on islands, the next major earthquake could put them in a similar distressing and heart-breaking situation that the residents of San Juan, Ponce, Bayamón and other Puerto Rican communities find themselves in—isolated and in need of outside help as life and death situations play out, relief trickles in and frustrations about adequate resources mount.
But it doesn’t take a major earthquake to isolate Seattle. As I documented in “The Geography of Disaster Risk and Resiliency,” major flooding along the Chehalis River in Washington state can sever the West Coast’s north-south backbone, Interstate 5, and if the timing is particularly unfortunate, winter weather can close Interstate 90’s route through the mountains, along with other highways over the Cascades. During last year’s Cascadia Rising megaquake emergency response scenario, one of the biggest sources of interagency frustration was the inability to clear Snoqualmie Pass east of Seattle quickly enough, as The Seattle Times reported.
In California, the next big quake on the San Andreas Fault is likely to sever the aqueducts that bring water over the mountains to places like Los Angeles along with the road connections that will be needed to truck in supplies and relief aid from the east.
The Trump administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, Brock Long, said Sunday that the Hurricane Maria crisis in Puerto Rico is the “most logistically challenging event that the United States has ever seen." And while the continuing-to-unfold disaster is certainly horrific, heartbreaking and most of all frustrating, the next catastrophic earthquake, whether it hits the Pacific Northwest, San Francisco Bay Area or Southern California, will bring far more misery and destruction and will test the government’s response like no other disaster has.
That’s why the West Coast can’t turn its head away and pretend it can’t be the next Puerto Rico. The disaster threat landscape may be different but the impacts will be very much the same.
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Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle. In 2002 and 2003, he worked as a consultant on a post-9/11 Federal Transit Administration emergency management program.
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