New Yorker writer discusses 'terror reaction' to earthquake article

Writer Kathryn Schulz talked to KGW About writing ‘The Really Big One' and how it changed her life

New Yorker article on NW quake trending



"Wineglasses, antique vases, Humpty Dumpty, hip bones, hearts: what breaks quickly generally mends slowly, if at all. OSSPAC estimates that in the I-5 corridor it will take between one and three months after the earthquake to restore electricity, a month to a year to restore drinking water and sewer service, six months to a year to restore major highways, and eighteen months to restore health-care facilities." 


-- Kathryn Schulz, "The Really Big One" (The New Yorker, July 20, 2015)

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Media outlets throughout the Northwest have been talking about the potentially devastating impact of a massive looming earthquake for years. But it took a writer for The New Yorker who deftly blended lyrical prose with sobering facts to drive home just how horrific a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake could be for every one of us who lives west of the Cascade Mountain Range.

In "The Really Big One," Kathryn Schulz describes exactly how a 9.0 earthquake would decimate Portland, Seattle and the coast – taking out roads and bridges, cutting electricity and water, and wiping out nearly everything in the tsunami inundation zone.

8 things we know about the 'Really Big' NW earthquake

Schulz's intent, however, was not to scare the living daylights out of us. She talked to KGW about the article's unexpected impact, how it changed her life, and why we should stop freaking out about the "Really Big One."

Were you surprised by the reaction? 

"I didn't actually see it coming at all," said Schulz, who works for The New Yorker mainly as a book critic. "I just somehow did not glom onto the fact that it would be read as sort of a horror story about the Pacific Northwest." 

The response was indeed so strong that Schulz wrote a follow-up article, outlining how Northwest residents can stay safe when the earthquake hits. In that report, she wrote that reactions to her first article varied from "terrifying" to "truly terrifying," and also "incredibly terrifying."   

"I'll be honest with you – I did not expect the kind of terror reaction," she said. "One of the most common comments I heard was, ‘Oh my gosh, this was terrifying. This was frightening. This was alarming. Thanks so much for scaring the holy heck out of all of us.' I suppose I should have seen that coming."

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Why did you decide to write ‘The Really Big One'?   

"I love science and I was fascinated by the scientific detective story that unfolds and the discovery of the Cascadia Subduction Zone," she said.

Schulz used to live in Portland and still spends her summers in Oregon visiting family and friends. Still, she said she had no idea that there was a threat of an earthquake in the region until just two years ago.

"When I first learned about this issue two years ago, I had no idea. I had literally never heard there was a major fault line in the region," she said. "I'm a big consumer of news and listen to the radio and I had never heard about this. I am very sympathetic to the fact that other people might not have, as well."

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What did you learn that surprised you the most?

"The whole thing was surprising to me. The initial surprise was that I could have lived out here for so long and have so many friends and family out here and never known about it," she said.

Schulz said the one person who surprised her the most was Carmen Merlo, Portland's head of emergency management.

"Every time she opened her mouth, she surprised me," Schulz said. "I was really surprised to learn that the majority of emergency responders for the city of Portland don't live in the city of Portland. Ninety-nine percent of the time that doesn't matter. But in the event of an earthquake where suddenly you can't get to where you need to be to respond in an ambulance, to respond in a firetruck, suddenly that's a crisis."

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The analysis of how Oregon students in the tsunami inundation zone would have a hard time evacuating was especially sobering. Have you heard anything from those schools after the article published?

"I have not and I wish that I had," she said. "Obviously some of the most disturbing statistics and information from that story come from the tsunami inundation zone in the coastal region, where it really is stark. Either you get out of the inundation zone and you're fine or you can't get out and you really are not fine. From my perspective, doing something like moving schools out of the inundation zone -- it's chump change in the scheme of what we as a nation spend money on."

How did ‘The Really Big One' change your life?  

"As my friends and family can tell you I have become a big evangelist for seismic safety," Schulz said. "I do in fact pester the people I love and sometimes total strangers about the basics, about bolting their houses down, and strapping down their water heaters and getting an earthquake kit."

She said the biggest change for her personally is how she approaches going to the Oregon coast.

"It really has changed how I feel about going to the coast," she said. "I don't go without knowing exactly how to get out. I do identify the evacuation routes before I go. When I go and I spend the night, I very deliberately choose places that are outside of the inundation zone. It's not hard, right? The inundation zone is not that wide. You get a mile or so back, a couple miles back, instead of having a lovely beachfront property you have a property with an incredible view. And you're just safe. If something happens in the middle of the night and you're there you don't have to scramble to get out of a place you've barely been and don't know how to get out of very well."

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Were coastal businesses upset about the article?

"I have certainly heard a little bit of low level scuttlebutt and murmuring of, ‘Oh, realtors are going to be so angry, and coastal businesses are going to be upset.' You know, I am not at all convinced that people should be upset," she said.

Schulz said it likely won't affect business, similarly to when the tsunami evacuation route signs were first installed along the coast.

"When this problem was first identified and DOGAMI went and started putting up tsunami evacuation route signs all up and down the coast, there were a number of communities where people took chainsaws to those things," she said. "They thought they were going to negatively affect businesses, negatively affect property values.  And they just didn't want the information out there and they literally chainsawed those things down. Now of course here we are however many years later and those signs are all up. Nobody seems to vandalize them, and guess what.  It has not made any difference at all to the coastal economy."

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What questions do you still have?

 "When is it going to happen? It's just a fundamental truth about earthquakes. Unlike essentially every other natural disaster, we cannot at all predict them," she said. "We have absolutely no idea."

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What is the one takeaway you wish people would hold onto?

Schulz said she hopes that, instead of being terrified, residents in the Northwest will approach the earthquake risk rationally.

"This is a real problem and there are things they can do about it," she said. "It's a major fault line. It's going to produce a very major earthquake. The response to that should not be blind panic or obliviousness. The response to that is, OK, we live in this region, we confront that risk. There are a lot of really simple really affordable, going on free, ways to take very serious steps to protect yourself that really do matter and make a difference. You can do most of them in a weekend."

As for people who are threatening to move, she noted that every place has inherent dangers.

"I mean, everywhere you go in the world there is some risk level about something. You're better off being prepared than sticking your head in the sand."

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What's next?

Schulz said she has a few projects in the works, but first she's heading to Central Oregon to hike the Cascades.

"I'm hoping to pack up my backpack and get out to Mount Jefferson, away from phones and the internet and response to earthquake calls," she said and laughed.

Oregon State prof says 9.0 quake coming in 30-50 years


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