It is very difficult to see the pictures from the tragedy in Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami and not wonder, as a structural engineer, what there is to learn from it so that it doesn’t happen again.  From all accounts, it sounds like it wasn’t the massive 9.0 earthquake that did the most damage; it was the 10-meter (33-foot) high tsunami wave that really created the devastation that we see in the news.  The nuclear reactors aren’t having meltdown because of the shaking of the quake, it’s because the back-up diesel generators weren’t located on high enough ground to survive the tsunami wave and the battery back-up to those couldn’t last more than 4-8 hours.

I’m not even going to try to wrap my head around the reports that 9,500 people from just one town were all swept up in the tsunami in addition to all the other losses, but I will take comfort in not hearing much in the way of damage in Tokyo.  That means that all the seismic designs that we implement should work when our country gets hit with another massive earthquake.  That is something that I can comprehend and move forward in my life with.  I’m not even remotely saying that it means your private residence is safe from even partial collapse in an earthquake, but it does mean that the modern structures that are designed to current codes and seismic loads should behave the way we want them to.  That’s what lets the structural engineer sleep at night.

So why did I title this blog post “Another Wake-up Call”?  Because I had just posted on February 22nd about Earthquake Preparedness following the New Zealand earthquake and it is now even more obvious how timely this information is.  The “Ring of Fire” around the Pacific Ocean has just unleashed 7.0 and 7.1 earthquakes in Chile and Argentina on January 1st and 2nd of this year, New Zealand has had up to 7.0 earthquakes in the area since September of last year, and Japan’s 7.2 quake two days before the 9.0 was enough to get us talking about the fact that the Pacific Plate is on the move.  The only quadrant that hasn’t had a major subduction earthquake in the last 400 years is the Northwest coast of the U.S. where the Juan de Fuca plate is located.  Those great earthquakes arrive about every 400 years, which is not a good statistic for those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest.

What does it really mean?  That anyone on the western coast of the U.S. has had ample warning to be prepared in the event of an earthquake.  Even though the subduction zone quake will only happen between about Crescent City in California and up through Oregon and Washington into British Columbia, California still needs to be equally prepared.  The more they study the history of the earthquakes, the more they find to support the theory that the great subduction earthquakes actually trigger San Andreas Fault quakes.  Fun right?

So what is the progress of my emergency shed?  I got some new Rubbermaid Roughneck storage boxes that fit the dimensions of the shed a little better and have transferred the supplies that I had compiled before into these more durable containers.  I made a list from all the sites that I had mentioned in my previous post and have been making sure to get the last of the items into the shed – we didn’t have our set of adult clothes and shoes in there, I hadn’t put any towels in before, our water storage had diminished over time and moving to new houses, and we even are adding more in the way of entertainment – a deck of cards, some dice games, coloring books with colored pencils.  I’m going to revamp the food storage at some point too, and am excited about some of the new backpacking recipe books that I have that would work for the food supply portion as well.

My only request at this point is for the earthquake to not happen when I’m not with my family.  Wishful thinking, I know.  What do you have in your emergency survival box?
After my last couple posts were about the revolutions going on in North Africa and the Middle East, I was really hoping to be able to muse about something a little more positive.  But after looking through some of the photos of the damage in Christchurch, New Zealand from Monday's 6.3 quake, I thought this might be a good time to remind the rest of the people around the Pacific Rim (as well as other seismic-prone areas) to make sure you're prepared for an earthquake near you.

The Seattle area had the 6.8 Nisqually quake happen back on February 28, 2001 and survived relatively unscathed.  Even Christchurch had a 7.1-magnitude quake back in September without casualties before the aftershock that occurred closer to the city yesterday further damaging and collapsing already weakened buildings.  It's easy to put off quakes in Alaska or even the one in Haiti as "not in my neighborhood" type events, but there will come a time along the West Coast of the U.S. where a large earthquake will do heavy damage to a lot of structures and a lot of people will be hurt and killed.  I feel like I'm being pessimistic, but it really is just being realistic in this case: I'm a structural engineer who has seen her fair share of inadequately designed buildings and heard a fair amount from more experienced engineers than I about all of the weaknesses that older - and sometimes not even all that old - buildings have.

So what do we do to get ready?  In King County, Washington - where Seattle is located - they've come up with a 3 Days, 3 Ways campaign for people to be prepared for natural disasters; FEMA has a similar site setup; and the Red Cross has a few resources for getting a disaster supply kit together, including a first aid kit.  The FEMA site even has a family list of supplies in their kids readiness section.

I think most people have some awareness of what they should have - it's really just a matter of finding a way to collect and store the items.  My dad actually built a little shed on the side of our house (I grew up in Southern California), but I actually got my family a Rubbermaid shed that holds most of our emergency kit/camping gear.  It sits outside our garage in the back yard and is fairly convenient for when we need to grab a sleeping bag, but outside enough that if something happened to our house, we'd still be able to access it without any issues.

Basically, even if it's just a couple flashlights and cans of food (with a can opener!), please learn from the tragedies of others to better prepare yourself.  I know I'm not as prepared as I could be, but I'm working on it - just like our emergency fund in the bank with 3-6 months of expenses!