California and the West Coast – You want to go there but be aware!

Golden Gate in Fog
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There are many reasons you want to visit California and the West Coast. Cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver as well as many National Parks (NP) and scenic areas. Movies and shows show us beautiful beaches, happy family life and lots of fun things to do. AuPairs are drawn to the area because it is presented as the place to be and everyone is talking about it.

California and the West Coast

Before my AuPair year I (Anja) wanted to go to California with Florida second and somewhere in the Northeast third. I don’t think there is anything negative about wanting to go there to experience it but I decided early on that it would be more important to me to find my fitting host-family no matter where they came from. That decision was probably influenced by my two student-exchange visits to the US where I spend two weeks in Bradenton, FL and two weeks near Hagerstown, MD, so I had some experience with the US already but I wanted to be open to any place because I wanted to experience more of the culture and I knew that the US has stark differences between areas. It was actually not until three years after my AuPair year, which I spend in Toms River, NJ, that I visited the West Coast for the first time (see Anja’s Westcoast-trip to San Diego, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Bryce NP, and Zion NP) and it should take another 12 years before I would return and begin to understand (see a Video-Preview of our Yosemite-Trip and Anja’s and Luis Road trip from San Francisco to Yosemite NP)… San Francisco is a really nice city and I got to like the people, the food, and the area.


There is just one reason I am not too fond of living in the Los Angeles – San Francisco Area: Earthquakes!

Yes, they may not happen every day, and you can prepare for parts – but you just don’t know… Movies like San Andreas and others just raise certain fears in me, just think about Japan a few years back. I learned enough in my advanced Geography calls and my studies to understand certain geological features and following possibilities…

And then…

You learn that it is not only the Los Angeles and San Francisco that are in a zone of possible risk (they are just the most publicized ones) but many areas further north are too. Alaska sees regular earthquakes of 5 on the Richter scale, and Western Canada, Oregon, and Washington are along an even more scary fault line called Cascadia – a line that can and probably will be more dangerous than the San Andreas fault…

Cascadia Subduction Zone

Cascadia Subduction Zone


How can you imagine such a fault line?

Kathryn Schulz recently wrote a very captivating article in The New Yorker (read it here), describing how you can imagine the fault line and what happens:

Take your hands and hold them palms down, middle fingertips touching. Your right hand represents the North American tectonic plate, which bears on its back, among other things, our entire continent, from One World Trade Center to the Space Needle, in Seattle. Your left hand represents an oceanic plate called Juan de Fuca, ninety thousand square miles in size. The place where they meet is the Cascadia subduction zone. Now slide your left hand under your right one. That is what the Juan de Fuca plate is doing: slipping steadily beneath North America. When you try it, your right hand will slide up your left arm, as if you were pushing up your sleeve. That is what North America is not doing. It is stuck, wedged tight against the surface of the other plate. Without moving your hands, curl your right knuckles up, so that they point toward the ceiling. Under pressure from Juan de Fuca, the stuck edge of North America is bulging upward and compressing eastward, at the rate of, respectively, three to four millimetres and thirty to forty millimetres a year. It can do so for quite some time, because, as continent stuff goes, it is young, made of rock that is still relatively elastic. (Rocks, like us, get stiffer as they age.) But it cannot do so indefinitely. There is a backstop—the craton, that ancient unbudgeable mass at the center of the continent—and, sooner or later, North America will rebound like a spring. If, on that occasion, only the southern part of the Cascadia subduction zone gives way—your first two fingers, say—the magnitude of the resulting quake will be somewhere between 8.0 and 8.6.Thats the big one. If the entire zone gives way at once, an event that seismologists call a full-margin rupture, the magnitude will be somewhere between 8.7 and 9.2. That’s the very big one. …By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable. Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA’s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.” In the Pacific Northwest, everything west of Interstate 5 covers some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people.   When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America. Roughly three thousand people died in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. Almost two thousand died in Hurricane Katrina. Almost three hundred died in Hurricane Sandy. FEMA projects that nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. Another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, and the agency expects that it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million. “This is one time that I’m hoping all the science is wrong, and it won’t happen for another thousand years,” Murphy says.


So what to do?

A good question here are some answers that I found and there are many resources out there to look at:

  • Drop, cover & hold – trying to run away will likely make you fall (source)
  • Earthquakes may be very quick but can last up to 11 minutes (source)
  • Earthquakes typically have an initial sharp jolt and then are followed a few seconds (possibly up to 30 seconds) later by more violent shaking (check for a simulation here source)
  • Big earthquakes will likely generate aftershocks that will cause more damage (source) and may trigger earthquakes in other regions, too (source)
  • Infrastructure (houses, streets, highways, big buildings, utilities,…) are being constructed to withstand certain natural powers but not everything will, especially older buildings may be damaged or even collapse. Getting next to a wall is advised ONLY when you are inside a building and there is nothing to get underneath for shelter. When outside it is important to move to an open area, as debris falling off of buildings will land close to walls (source).
  • Water retreating may be a sign of a tsunami (source) Tsunami events typically have multiple waves, and the first is not always the largest (source)
  • Fires are a concern after an earthquake – know how to turn of gas-lines in your house (source)
  • Know what to do will help you not to panic but to act rationally!
  • Text first, talk second (source)
  • Take a Community Emergency Response Training
  • Talk with your host-family about how to respond in an emergency (this is a great idea for any type of emergency!)
  • Be prepared yourself and with your kids!


How will it begin?

Kathryn Schulz (The New Yorker (read it here)), describes what will happen in California and the West Coast from multiple perspectives:

The first sign that the Cascadia earthquake has begun will be a compressional wave, radiating outward from the fault line. Compressional waves are fast-moving, high-frequency waves, audible to dogs and certain other animals but experienced by humans only as a sudden jolt. They are not very harmful, but they are potentially very useful, since they travel fast enough to be detected by sensors thirty to ninety seconds ahead of other seismic waves. That is enough time for earthquake early-warning systems, such as those in use throughout Japan, to automatically perform a variety of lifesaving functions: shutting down railways and power plants, opening elevators and firehouse doors, alerting hospitals to halt surgeries, and triggering alarms so that the general public can take cover. The Pacific Northwest has no early-warning system. When the Cascadia earthquake begins, there will be, instead, a cacophony of barking dogs and a long, suspended, what-was-that moment before the surface waves arrive. Surface waves are slower, lower-frequency waves that move the ground both up and down and side to side: the shaking, starting in earnest. Soon after that shaking begins, the electrical grid will fail, likely everywhere west of the Cascades and possibly well beyond. If it happens at night, the ensuing catastrophe will unfold in darkness. In theory, those who are at home when it hits should be safest; it is easy and relatively inexpensive to seismically safeguard a private dwelling. But, lulled into nonchalance by their seemingly benign environment, most people in the Pacific Northwest have not done so. That nonchalance will shatter instantly. So will everything made of glass. Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, cannisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off—or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward. Unmoored on the undulating ground, the homes will begin to collapse.    Across the region, other, larger structures will also start to fail. Until 1974, the state of Oregon had no seismic code, and few places in the Pacific Northwest had one appropriate to a magnitude-9.0 earthquake until 1994. The vast majority of buildings in the region were constructed before then.


Resources for California and the West Coast has some preparedness recommendations (check it also for additional resources!):

Prepare – Before


Before the next big earthquake (or other emergency) in your area, do whatever you can to get prepared so you will survive and recover quickly. These four steps each contain a basic set of recommended actions for how to get prepared at home or in the workplace.Many are free or low cost solutions. Start with Step 1 by securing a potential danger in your home, something that is easy and fast to accomplish. For example, move a heavy object from a high location closer to the floor. This only will take a minute and will prevent the object from falling onto someone or causing damage. You don’t need to complete all of the actions in each step before beginning the next.   Step 2:Plan to be safe by creating a disaster plan and deciding how you will communicate in an emergency.  Step 4:Minimize financial hardship by organizing important documents, strengthening your property, and considering insurance.  

Step 1: Secure your space by identifying hazards and securing moveable items.
Step 3: Organize disaster supplies in convenient locations.

You can complete one item a day, one a weekend, or one a month. Just remember that earthquakes strike without warning, so you want to get as many completed BEFORE the shaking starts. Soon you will be prepared to survive and recover!


Survive – During


During the next big earthquake, and immediately after, is when your level of preparedness will make a difference in how you and others survive and can respond to emergencies. The following steps describe what to do during earthquake shaking and immediately after. Step 5 provides information for how to protect yourself in different locations and scenarios during an earthquake. Step 6 describes what to do next to prevent further injuries or damage. Step 6:Improve safety after earthquakes by evacuating if necessary, helping the injured, and preventing further injuries or damage.

Step 5: Drop, Cover, and Hold On when the earth shakes.



Recover – Afterwards


After the next big earthquake, your recovery and that of the community may take weeks to months or even longer. While earthquakes can be a traumatic experience, it’s important not to let important things slip that will help you, your family, and your community get back on your feet. While this phase only has one step, the time involved will most likely be the longest, especially if your home or workplace has been damaged.  

Step 7: Reconnect and Restore Restore daily life by reconnecting with others, repairing damage, and rebuilding community.

Any community struck by disaster will be affected in some significant way. But keep in mind that a community is only as strong as the residents who make it up, so invoivement in the recovery, priorities, and “how” a community comes back is very important. This is because the people who normally make the decisions in a community may not be there, or others or are not as familiar with unique aspects of a community are trying to help guide the road back. This means that some decisions might be made that could hinder a speedy recovery in some way. As a member of your community, your voice and experience are important to the rebuilding process. The community needs you – get involved!

But this is all information from a non-West-Coast-Resident… My call to action to you reading this (YES YOU!): Please provide your experiences and resources in the comments and help others prepare!


 Do you think about the earthquake and tsunami-potential on the West Coast? Did you talk to your host-family about how to be prepared? How do you prepare yourself? This is your chance to help others with your experiences and knowledge!

You may also be interested in reading the following:

Movie Star Homes Tour

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