Why I Declined to Join My Neighborhood Earthquake Preparedness Group

The Earthquake Preparedness People knocked on my door the other day, and I turned them away. I knew they weren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses because of the orange vests they carried. Everybody who joins the preparedness group gets one. It wasn’t the first time I was approached about joining the group; a neighbor I know is on the team. When I respectfully told him that I didn’t feel I could meaningfully devote time to the endeavor, his expression changed to one of perplexity and mild disdain.

To be perfectly clear, the group’s concerns are legitimate. According to many seismologists, The Cascadia Subduction Zone is due for “The Big One.” There have been 41 earthquakes along this fault in the last 10,000 years. The last big one came in 1700, dropped the coastline several feet, and caused a gargantuan tsunami.

The prognostications are scary. Unreinforced masonry buildings will crumble and come tumbling down all over the Pacific Northwest. Liquefaction within the soft riverbed substrate in parts of heavily populated areas would threaten to tilt and/or collapse even reasonably constructed buildings. Lifeline electrical grids, essential transportation and other infrastructure, water delivery and wastewater processing, internet connectivity, you name it, could be adversely affected for months, even years.

Supermarket shelves would be stripped bare in a matter of hours. Those in need of crucial prescription medications, as many of my boomer neighbors are, will likely find the local Walgreens ransacked. To a significant degree, the rule of law would not hold.

Entire towns along the Oregon and Washington coasts could be fully inundated. In a Big One scenario, countless lives could be lost.

The potential for catastrophic disaster is undeniable, but after declining to involve myself in neighborhood preparedness on two separate occasions I must accept the fact that if the much-feared Cascadia quake does happen, I’ll be totally on my own.  My house is marked as inhabited by a person who didn’t have time for the meetings. Who wasn’t interested in joining my neighbors in their mission to identify as many earthquake preparedness people as possible and sign them onto the email database. Would not agree to have his domicile serve as a possible reconnaissance location in the event of an emergency.

In the minds of the preppers, I am an earthquake denier who will be up the proverbial creek when The Big One hits.

It’s true. I’ve got about two days worth of food in my kitchen. Then it will come down to picking the invasive blackberries in my backyard. Which I may be reduced to guarding with a firearm. Water? Get to the nearest river and/or pray for rain.

So why did I not get involved? Yes, I’m busy, but more importantly, I am pretty much on my own here. My wife, bless her soul, has passed, and my children are grown and gone. I have no family to look after, at least in my own neighborhood. If the freeways collapse, I’m not going to be able to bring blackberries to my daughter and grandkids in Beaverton. I’m banking on the hope that my son and son-in-law take the Cascadia Subduction Zone quake more seriously, as I would have done as a younger husband and father.

The other reason I was nonplussed by the warnings is that I grew up in California, the Bay Area, where we had earthquakes every other week. Some of them, like Loma Prieta, were pretty bad, but the vast majority of them you just rode out. Electrical power was rarely down for long, and even then, you could always get a lukewarm spicy dog at a nearby 7-Eleven.

These two factors, that I’m an aging bachelor whose neighborhood is isolated from loved ones, and that I grew up along the mother of all faults, San Andreas, have combined to render me unwilling to prepare for what some of my neighbors are convinced is in the cards.

In early 2019 the Portland City Council passed an ordinance that required owners of unreinforced masonry buildings to either reinforce to the aggregate cost of billions or install a plaque at the entrance stating that said building could become a deathtrap in the event of a major shaker.

The ordinance is currently under a federal temporary injunction after protests by various business and property ownership entities, including a strong protest from businesses owned by people of color. They rightfully claimed that the economic ramifications of reinforcement mandates fell most heavily on older neighborhoods where people of color were more likely to own businesses, and that the warning plaque at the front door would hurt business.

Indeed. Somehow, as an earthquake unpreparedness guy, that made me feel better. That there were other people willing to bet that the danger might be overstated. That somehow life will go on, and that everything is going to be all right.

I don’t want to think about what will happen if everything is not all right. My home is not strapped to its foundation--a reinforcement that many of my neighbors have paid thousands to complete. That means that any quake over 6.0 could topple the structure off its foundation, rendering it a total loss.

Because my home will be dangerously unstable, I’ll be outside in my backyard eating berries and rooted-up onion bulbs over a campfire built using wood salvaged from my collapsed detached garage. My pickup truck might have a half tank or so of gas in it when The Big One hits, but if the roads are unpassable, I won’t get far.

The worst will happen when I try to approach the Earthquake Preparedness People down the block, who have stockpiled the essentials that will tide them over until a massive governmental and nonprofit relief effort is able to swing into action and save as many lives as possible.

At that point, I’ll be damn good and ready to get involved.

Mark Ellis is the author of A Death on the Horizon, a novel of political upheaval and cultural intrigue. He came aboard at PJ Media in 2015. His literary hangout is Liberty Island. Follow Mark on Twitter.