Eathquake musings

Disasters are Created

with 3 comments

Famous seismologist Hiroo Kanamori used to say “Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings kill people”.   This nice Yogi Berra-ism is obvious, but illustrates the basic


Hiroo Kanamori

problem with all disasters. It’s rarely the initial event the comes out of the blue and kills people directly like an asteroid; more commonly the event triggers a chain reaction that may or may not snowball into an unfolding disaster.  The present Corona virus apocalypse makes it difficult to think about other disasters, but it many ways, it is exactly the right time to use the pandemic as a teachable moment.   Some disasters have very long cycle times, so that not only are the lessons learned forgotten, but the possibility of another one is downplayed or diminished.   I like to use aviation to think about such things because the cycle times are short, the accidents are very well investigated, and corrections are usually made quickly.  In that way, we have learned to take flying from a ridiculously risky endeavor to where we can safely fly through horrendous weather watching movies in the back and enjoying ourselves.   Unfortunately, this degree of safety came at a heavy cost.  Crash after crash after crash tested every airplane, every concept, and every practice in the harshest possible way until flying evolved to where it is today.  And we’re still not done, as the 737 Max fiasco is illustrating for the world. 


Ethiopian 737 crash.  Credit:

One thing that we have clearly learned is that disasters don’t just happen, they are created years ahead of time.  The 737 problems started back when Boeing merged with Douglas, and the company leadership changed from one dominated by engineers and pilots, to one dominated by corporate CEO’s.  That set in motion the downgrades to safety vs. profit that led the poor choices made in the design and testing of systems added to the venerable 737, a proven aircraft, and led to the crashes and current idling of the 737 at Boeing.   At the high end of aviation would have to be spaceflight.  The margins are thinner, the risks higher, and the options are few when things go south.  Yet NASA has fallen victim to the very same types of created disasters.  There are many examples, including the Apollo 1 fire which killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee because the new Command Module was not ready for high-level testing and the crew knew it.  But the long string of successes perhaps lent a level of overconfidence to NASA in the late 1960’s, and their luck ran out. 

The best known example is the Challenger disaster.  The well-known ice water demonstration of what happens to a cold-brittle o-ring performed by Richard Feynman at the accident board showed why the accident happened.  What wasn’t as well-known was that this was not a one-time occurrence.  On many previous flights, the o-rings had burned partially through, just not far enough to trigger a failure.  The Thiokol engineers knew this, and had started designing a new system to mitigate the problem created years before, but just never anticipated what would happen next.  Faced with a brutally cold moning for launch, the engineers told NASA manager Larry Mulloy that they were opposed to the launch in such untested conditions.  Mulloy overruled them and ordered the launch anyway.  This disaster showed that even with a designed in weakness that was known, and had existed for years, people can still make decisions that lead to disasters that were easily averted.  Challenger spawned a cottage industry of books, workshops and seminars to study such situations and attempt to teach people how to recognize and manage risks ahead of time, rather than as a reaction to a disaster.  Incredibly, NASA failed again with Columbia, making a another series of poor unsupported judgements that led to the loss of a second shuttle and seven crew.


Challenger explosion.  Credit

All very interesting, but what does this have to do with earthquakes?  Hopefully it’s obvious.  With earthquakes, the cycle times are long, and the tendency to ignore the problem is great.   Because the last one was a long time ago, and the next one could be after we’re gone, they are easy to ignore.   So the challenge is, can we learn enough to avert a coming disaster in a place like Cascadia ahead of time?  After all, the hazard from the earthquake and tsunami are now well known, and have been the subject of numerous scientific papers, documentaries, popular articles and books.  In the past few years, the public awareness has skyrocketed, partly from an article in the New Yorker that got the attention of nearly everyone in a way that nothing else had before.  So understanding of the problem isn’t the thing, we have all the information we need (more is always better of course).

Much like Challenger, when other pressures compete with doing the obvious right thing, things may go sideways.  In his case, Larry Mulloy was famously quoted as saying ‘What are we supposed to do, wait until Spring?” on that cold January Tuesday morning.  The engineers suggested waiting til Thursday, when it was forecast to be 70 degrees.  Two days.  But there were millions of people out on the causeways to watch the launch and they had an aggressive launch schedule aimed at making the shuttle profitable.  So the decision was made.

Can we learn how to not make such bad decisions?  Of course we can.  Will we?  That’s the question.   Currently, we are building the next Cascadia disaster.   We’re laying the groundwork, piece by piece, and it’s all very public, in plain sight.   Some of these include:  1) Failure to begin retrofit of buildings in Portland, Seattle, Victoria, Vancouver and all across the region; 2) repeal of the Oregon tsunami line and prohibitions against building in the inundation zone; and 3) efforts to undermine science agencies to install building code provisions that would allow development in tsunami zones.

Portland went sideways spectacularly when they proposed to begin bracing parapets, the smallest of retrofit baby steps imaginable.  Building owners turned out in force claiming poverty.  Portland backed off and proposed placarding URM buildings as potentially unsafe in earthquakes.  Building owners again mobilized, claimed poverty, and further claimed it was a scheme to gentrify Portland in a racist way, enlisting the NAACP, musicians, and religious groups.  They sued Portland in Federal Court, claiming it was a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech because they could not respond to the proposed placards.  Incredibly, they won, and Portland is now at a standstill.

The repeal of Oregon’s 1995 tsunami line was a spectacular step backward, departing from the global best practice of avoidance of tsunami inundation.  The Oregon legislature was tricked into supporting this, and most legislators thought it was a minor tweak to mining regulations.  It its place, legislators proposed to adopt some new modeling done by the ASCE, and an approach based not on avoidance, but on building stronger buildings.  Nowhere in the world is this considered a good idea.  Promoters of coastal development realized that if critical facilities could be built, the development of tsunami zones could proceed with future residents assured that there would be schools, hospitals, police and fire services for them.  The details are in a previous blog…  It was sold as an improvement to the old law, but in reality it was simply a loophole created to promote development.

This is how the coming Cascadia disaster is being built.  In view of everyone, it is going together piece by piece, in public.  When it’s over, and the histories are written, how it was built will be well documented.  Perhaps it will again spawn a cottage industry to learn from such obvious mistakes, just as Challenger did.


Developments in tsunami zones?  Credit: New Yorker.

Written by eqgold

April 1, 2020 at 11:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this Chris. Very interesting reading. Not to take away from your message, but it occurred to me that there are at least 2 ways that an earthquake disaster is different from COVID-19. COVID-19 is global in nature whereas an earthquake is regional / sub-national. So resources from outside the region can make it there within a couple weeks and the economy can start to recover. Unlike an earthquake, COVID-19 could end up resulting in a second Great Recession, Great Depression, or worse. All that said, clearly it is really DUMB (from a long-time societal viewpoint) to allow building in tsunami zones. It is quite dismaying that the legislature has allowed this. The costs and human losses will one day become apparent.



    April 1, 2020 at 12:41 pm

    • Yes indeed, COVID-19 is a very different beast, no direct comparison intended. But the principles are the same. In many ways that disaster was enhanced by decisions made to disband the pandemic response team, to downplay and call it a hoax, ignore the experts and many other things that have made it far worse than it might have been.



      April 1, 2020 at 12:59 pm

      • Thank you. Keep up the good fight.



        April 1, 2020 at 1:07 pm

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