ShakeOut! Did Seattle’s Earthquake Drill Make A Deadly Mistake?

With a title like that, I’d like to start by saying I appreciate all the great work being done by earthquake planners in our shake-prone region. And to underscore my enthusiasm, let it be known that I participated in this year’s Great ShakeOut, an earthquake drill on a massive scale that happened just this last week. In so doing, I learned a lot about earthquake preparedness and safety. But I’ve got to say, some of what I saw and read was, to my way of thinking, not such good advice. In particular the explicit recommendation that people should exit stadiums after a quake could, instead of saving lives, cause death on a massive scale. No. Really. Keep reading.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of earthquake preparedness, and I respect the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) advice in general. Last Thursday I dropped, covered, and held on, just as they suggest in their poster (click it for a better view). Right at 10:17 AM, according to plan, I joined millions of people around the world doing the earthquake drill at the same time in a vast number of locations. I was in my writing office. Others were in their homes, workplaces, or schools.

I took a few moments to scramble around on the floor imagining the walls rocking to and fro, but afterwards I got to thinking. I re-read their plan and confirmed a problem that worried me. It’s specific to the Seattle Area, so everyone else, don’t worry. If you’re in Denver’s Mile High Stadium when a quake strikes, you’ll probably be fine following the plan as stated. But if you find yourself at a major league baseball or football game in Seattle, you should avoid what I think is the opposite of good advice given in point Number 9. Following that point to the letter in the Seahawks or Mariners stadiums might be lethal for a very large number of people.

Here’s the problem. The two stadiums in question, the Mariners’ T-Mobile Field baseball stadium, and the Seahawks’ CenturyLink football stadium, are located in the flat SoDo district of Seattle. The area is flat because it was built on landfill atop the Duwamish River mudflats. The present mile-wide, perfectly flat landscape sits about sixteen feet above average sea level on Puget Sound, and only about eight feet above the highest tides. That’s exactly why FEMA’s advice does not ring true to me.

In Panel 7 of their presentation, they suggest people near beaches should drop, cover, and hold on, just like people in other situations would do. Then they tell you to quickly walk to higher ground. Here’s the rub, higher ground is about a quarter mile away for CenturyLink sports fans, and nearly a half mile away for T-Mobile patrons. Much easier said than done. But that’s not the worst of it.

Panel 9, which is more specific to stadium-goers, gives advice that is arguably worse. After correctly showing people dropping below the level of their seats to protect from objects falling from above (I wrote about this in my book), it then goes on to make a huge mistake: TELLING PEOPLE TO WALK OUT OF THE STADIUM.

But as I described in vivid detail in The Great Seattle Earthquake, that maneuver would put masses of people directly in the path of a tsunami that would wash completely over the SoDo district within 5 to 10 minutes after the end of shaking on the Seattle Fault.

And adding a dose of panic, a lot of those people will be running. In my view, that will only serve to increase the number of people who reach the streets just in time to meet a killer wave, taller than a man, as it roars ashore. Such a wave will sweep up everything in its path, including any unlucky people who happened to have left the stadium—on FEMA’s advice!

As I described in gruesome detail in The Great Seattle Earthquake, leaving the stadium after the shaking stops is most definitely a dangerous idea. Quakes on the Seattle Fault can propel huge surges of water into the Seattle area. It has happened before. An entire Native American camp was swamped and buried in tsunami sand on Discovery Park’s West Point—right in town! This sort of thing is also retold in Duwamish Indian legends of the earthquake serpent spirit A’yahos. I researched and wrote about all this in the book too, so I’m starting to feel like some sort of expert.

I’ll go a step further and warn you: unless the stadium is crumbling all around you, STAY PUT despite what the FEMA guidelines say. As other experts might tell you, Shelter In Place.

And things could get even worse. In my story, I describe something no expert seems to have addressed, or perhaps even thought of. What if Harbor Island were to collapse like what happened in Valdez, Alaska in 1964’s Great Alaskan Earthquake? There, a mudflat landfill like Harbor Island slumped entirely into the sea, producing a tidal wave 30 feet tall that killed scores of people in that sparsely populated area. God forbid such a monster wave should strike SoDo with fifty thousand people in a stadium. But one really could.

There. I’ve said my piece. Take it or leave it. Someday, it may be your life on the line.

So what’s to be done? I think a couple of things are obvious. First of all, decide right now, and bear it in mind, that if you experience an earthquake while at a game in Seattle, you will not immediately leave the stadium, unless the place is coming down around your ears. Stay put and shelter in your seat like the folks in Panel 9. Think long and hard before going out onto the streets. Even the playing fields themselves will flood. So, hey, team, don’t hesitate. Climb into the stands as if your lives depended on it. They may.

Secondly, I think Seattle should take some initiative beyond what FEMA provides in their very general document. I believe Seattle would be wise to install a tidal-wave detecting system on local waters, especially near SoDo. Timely information could be critical if a wave is on the way within minutes. The decision to leave a damaged stadium or to stay in it will be a fateful choice. Knowing whether a wave is on the way could make the difference between life and death for hundreds—or thousands—of stadium-goers.

Click HERE to download a full pdf version of the FEMA plan.

About Tom Hopp

Thomas P Hopp is a scientist and author living in Seattle. He writes medical thrillers, natural disaster novels, and the Dinosaur Wars science fiction series.
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3 Responses to ShakeOut! Did Seattle’s Earthquake Drill Make A Deadly Mistake?

  1. JOANNE MURRAY says:

    Your account of the Seattle earthquake is filled with good information on what to do and what not to do when it happens. Seattle is built on landfill and Harbor Island is the result of the Denny Regrade and all fill dirt. The book; The Great Seattle Earthquake is a wonderful book to read about the research that is being done now, to help those living in Seattle and especially the waterfront communities, to prepare for a huge tidal wave, similar to the one that hit Japan and wiped out the entire town. We must be prepared! It will happen! When is just a guess because the land is moving constantly.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Tom. Helpful information and I hope I am not in the Sodo district during a Seattle earthquake!

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