Eerie parallels: COVID-19 & my medical thriller The Neah Virus

When I released my novel The Neah Virus back in 2013, there was little reason to suspect I was writing about issues we’d all be facing in 2020. But here we are, locked down–some of us–and hearing daily of a deadly nemesis that apparently arose among wild animals and made the leap from them to us. With horrendous consequences. And no end in sight (though as a vaccine researcher, I’m optimistic a cure is around the corner).

In my book, a virus emerges from nature at Neah Bay, a small Native American reservation town at the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula here in Washington State. People start dying. Contagion is rampant. The Centers for Disease Control calls for desperate measures, including quarantines that require the National Guard to intervene in the interest of public safety. Does any of this sound familiar?

Want more parallels? The virus in my story is a mutant, an altered form of the already deadly rabies virus, changed into an even more lethal and fast-spreading form. Sound familiar?

This is the sort of thinking that wakes me up at night and gets my fingers flying over the keyboard. Given my history of working on vaccines and immune-system hormones over an entire scientific career, I suppose it’s not too surprising. But with that background, when the imagination gets into overdrive, I come up with some pretty scary stuff. Scary to me, let alone an unsuspecting reader.

Consider this short excerpt:

“Once you’ve read the virus’s code, how many days will it take to make a vaccine?”

“The same rules apply as for other viruses,” McKean said gravely. “It takes months to produce each year’s influenza vaccine, and that’s a virus we have a lot of experience with. Given an unknown virus like this, it might take years to create a new vaccine.”

“Years! Isn’t there a shortcut?”

“We could try producing the virus’s surface protein in a bacterial culture—a subunit vaccine. That might be accomplished in weeks or months.”

“But that might be too late for us, if we’ve been exposed.”

His expression darkened. “Kay Erwin told me this morning the number of people with symptoms like Pete Whitehall’s has grown to eighty. That’s enough to convince me the virus is dangerous, even if the CDC still isn’t sure. How have you been feeling, Fin?”

End quote. Now, that’s what we’ve been hearing about the coronavirus–months to years before we have a vaccine. Yikes.

But here’s a nice thing about fiction: if the writer insists on a happy ending (or at least a non-lethal ending) then that’s what you get.

Here’s a link to more information about The Neah Virus if you’re interested.

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Formulating COVID-19 Synthetic Vaccine Doses

This is my third and final post describing a COVID-19 synthetic vaccine. Future posts will return to the usual fare of books, stories, and anecdotes. But this last serious post wraps up a full disclosure of how to make a COVID-19 vaccine, so here goes.

The thing is, you can’t just make a vaccine. You have to inject it, and it has to immunize. So the last step in this process is called formulation. I’ve formulated injectables for–let’s see–about 47 years now, so I ought to know how. Shown at left is a photo of the most recent vaccine I worked on, an anti-cancer vaccine targeting the hormone hCG (there are links below for more information about it).

But before I get into formulation details, let me show you just how well these vaccines work. The graph at right shows an hCG synthetic-peptide vaccination (black arrow) that raised high levels of anti-cancer antibodies within just three weeks and increased by a thousand-fold a few weeks after that. High antibody levels persisted for six months and probably lasted more than a year, though the experiment was ended before that. The two white insets show ISMS (injection site macro-pathology scores) at or below 1.0, which the FDA defines as very little ouch going on. Wouldn’t you like to be protected for six months to a year from COVID-19 right about now? I know I would. By next year, COVID-19 may have done its damage and disappeared, only to be replaced by some new threat coming along. No worries though, we can always make a whole new synthetic peptide targeting the next microbe in three days.

All vaccines are formulated with some added materials (adjuvants) that aid the immune response by creating a depot of material that stays at the injection site for weeks or months. All the while white blood cells come and go, getting more and more riled up and producing more and more antibodies. There are dozens of formulation components out there, and most immunology labs have some on hand. I’ve used quite a number of them myself. Things like alum, squalene oil, gels, and mineral powders, plus immunostimulants like muramyl dipeptide or cytokines thrown in for good measure. It’s a bit of a grab bag of possibilities, but most immunology labs have these things or can get them. The slowest step is to test them in a quality assurance (QA) program to guarantee their safety–but what I’m talking about here assumes you’ve already got the materials certified clean and ready-to-go.

So let me be specific here, because there are many ways to do things wrong, and only a few ways to get the right blend of immune-enhancing ingredients. Here’s my favorite formula (you can skip this part if you don’t have a PhD in biochemistry):

  1. Solid immunogen
  • Peptide-DT conjugate: 0.5 grams
  • Calcium sulfate hemihydrate: 2.0 grams
  • Dextran sulfate (Na): 0.15 grams
  • Water: 1.5 grams (ccs)

Mix these to a thick suspension, dry to a solid block, grind to a fine white powder, sieve to 45-to-150 micrometer particles.

  1. Water-in-oil emulsion

Suspend the fine powder in saline containing 0.125 mg/mL nor-muramyl dipeptide (an immunostimulant). Combine two parts of this with three parts of emulsion oil (squalene + mannide mono-oleate 4:1) and mix vigorously. Your vaccine emulsion is ready to inject!

That wasn’t so bad now, was it? Many vaccine labs have the chemicals and equipment on hand to do this. The next step is animal testing by immunizing white rabbits or mice. These doses can be prepared quickly as shown below, where an emulsion is being made by pushing back and forth between two syringes until your thumbs ache.

For human dose preparation, industrial emulsion-makers, large-scale sterile facilities, and other quality-control techniques are required. No one wants to give a dose of one microbe while protecting against another.

So there you have it. We’ve made our peptide conjugate, mixed in our favorite adjuvants, and now we’re ready to vaccinate a lot of people. The benchtop recipe above could dose five to ten thousand people, and the process can be scaled up to industrial strength for hundreds of thousands or millions of doses. But in the short term, wouldn’t it be nice to use smaller batches to protect hospital staff from getting or giving the virus, as well as first responders and other at-risk people? With this vaccine, all of that can happen within a timespan of a few weeks to a few months, depending on whether you take a little time off to sleep. Given the viral threat hanging over us, who’s really sleeping all that much these days anyway?

Please don’t let the conversational tone I use here fool you. I’m quite serious about this vaccine. Deadly serious, given COVID-19 is out there killing people and this vaccine could be saving lives right now. It’s just that I’m retired and don’t have a laboratory of my own. It might take me months-to-years just to find a funding source and begin operations. On the other hand, there are many organizations around the world that have the right facilities and personnel to make this happen.

My task is finding them and convincing them to give this method a try. Wish me luck.

Below are links for more detail on this kind of vaccine. If you wade through the data in links 2 and 3, you will see that my colleagues and I have made this type of vaccine work in humans before.

  1. First, a link back to my previous COVID-19 postings on my blog site. You can learn a lot about my scientific background by visiting my home page and wandering its links (contact info too).
  2. An old business plan for CG Therapeutics Inc., with details of our cancer vaccine clinical trials (a large pdf, give it time to download).
  3. An old slideshow on CG Therapeutics’ technology with even more vaccine details (a larger pdf).

I have even more information, including a full IND (Investigational New Drug) application that I helped prepare for the now-defunct CG Therapeutics. It wouldn’t take long to repurpose that 319-page document to present this COVID-19 vaccine to the FDA. Any takers?

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Recipe for making COVID-19 vaccine in three days

In my previous post I gave a general outline as to how to make a COVID-19 vaccine in three days. Today I’d like to lay out the plan in fine detail. Pay attention. Everything you need to synthesize an effective COVID-19 vaccine is right here in this post. Of course, you’ll need a sterile, fully equipped immunochemistry lab with quality-control procedures in place to do it—but there are, after all, several thousand such labs around the world. You know who you are…

Take a moment to glance over the image above. It is the “formula” for my vaccine as they say in science fiction movies. However, this is documented science fact, as I explained in the previous post. The loop of circled amino acids represents a disembodied fragment of the virus’s surface “spike” protein. According to the Hopp and Woods computer method, this is THE most likely place for antibodies to bind the virus and kill it.

In this case, however, the fragment has been tamed and made to serve humanity rather than kill. Working clockwise down from the viral antigen loop at the top, you see a chemical linker, a maleimido-caproyl group that attaches the virus sequence to the other major component of the vaccine, diphtheria toxoid (DT).

Diphtheria toxoid is a component of the childhood vaccine, DPT, which gives long-lived immunity against the Corynebacterium diphtheriae microbe, whooping cough’s Bordetella pertussis bacterium, and lockjaw toxin made by Clostridium tetani. The DT protein component of that vaccine is a potent immunostimulant in its own right, and that’s why it’s been recruited for use with Hopp and Woods vaccines. As proteins go, it has the twin assets of being very foreign to the human body, and very large—by molecular standards. Both these qualities, foreignness and “bigness” result in the body getting a raging inflammatory reaction whenever it encounters DT. So a great way to deliver a Hopp and Woods peptide, which is a relatively small molecule, is to attach it to a big nasty monster molecule like DT. The attachment is made via the maleimido-caproyl link hooking on to one of the many “lysine” side chains of the DT molecule (lysine being the amino acid of food supplement fame, by the way).

So here’s an image of the full embodiment of a Hopp and Woods vaccine, in fact two examples. As you can see, the synthesis procedure hooks multiple copies of the vaccine peptide onto each single copy of the DT molecule. It is this rather dangerous looking thing that your white blood cells react to angrily when they encounter it.

There’s a reason why I’m showing two different DT conjugates here. Imagine that the blue-studded DT has the first peptide I showed above attached to it. There’s no reason a lab couldn’t make another, different piece of the virus and attach it to DT as well, to make a second version of the vaccine. Then, if you inject both simultaneously, you get double the chances of having a strong, protective antibody response.

Here’s a second immunogen I came up with. It was picked out by a souped-up version of my computerized analysis of the virus by what I call my HYDRO4 procedure (too much detail?). Anyway, you can see that the same mechanism of attaching to DT is used, but the peptide sequence is entirely different. It’s also not a loop, but rather a linear snake-like sequence of amino acids. I’ve used many looped and/or linear peptides over a long career of making such things, and I think both have their merits.

So, where do we go from here? I don’t have a peptide synthesizer anymore. If I had one, it would be running right now. Actually, it would have long since finished and we’d probably be dosing patients by now. But I’m retired and Hopp and Woods vaccines have languished through lack of interest by government funding agencies and corporate moguls. So here I sit, typing away. And there’s a certain power in that. I long ago published this whole concept in a work of fiction, my medical thriller novel The Smallpox Incident. In that story a biotech researcher who does have a peptide synthesizer gets infected by genetically altered smallpox virus in the hands of bioterrorists. He has to save himself (and humanity) by doing just what I’ve outlined above. So I foresaw the desperate, need-a-vaccine-yesterday scenario we find ourselves in now.

But truth can be stranger than fiction. With my novel as a guide to how to do it, I have been ready for this day to become a grim reality for nearly twenty years. Does anybody out there want to give this a try? This post gives you every bit of information you need to create a Hopp and Woods vaccine for COVID-19. All you need is a peptide synthesizer and a couple other pieces of scientific equipment in a sterile manufacturing environment. Then a vaccine could be in-hand—or in-arm—within a matter of days. Realistically, it would take a week or two to assure that the vaccine was made properly, and then much longer to get government agencies to approve the product for use in humans. But suppose they were tipped off the day you started the synthesis and they also worked day and night to provide the necessary approvals? It could be done.

Several people have gotten back to me suggesting I get in touch with this billionaire or that senator, or this foundation or that government agency. All I can tell you is I’ve been there done that for several other vaccines, long since. It’s a slow process. But I know that out there somewhere is someone with the lab facilities and the ability to make a batch of this vaccine–say, 20,000 doses, starting tonight.

And, be aware that I’ll have one more post on this subject coming in the next few days. I’ve learned several tricks on how to make very efficacious dose formulations to go into the syringe and I’ll gladly share those. Few people know how to soup up a vaccine like I do.

Truth is, I’m trying to reach past the government officials and gatekeepers to get to the people who can actually do this work. It’s a big world and there are many qualified vaccine production labs. So do us all a favor, folks. Pass this post along. Sooner or later (hopefully sooner) it will land in the right pair of hands.

This is Part Two of a three-part posting about the vaccine. Here are convenient links to:

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My Old Neglected Vaccine Could Nail COVID-19

Humanity versus the coronavirus. Who’s winning? So far, advantage COVID-19. But things could change rapidly for the better if a scientific procedure I published 39 years ago is dusted off and brought to bear on this new nemesis. What we lack right now is a vaccine that can stimulate antibodies in our bloodstreams like the one at left, shown grabbing onto a surface molecule of the SARS virus. Remember that bug? In 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome killed quite a few people, though its pandemic was smalltime compared to what we’re facing now. After ten years or so, scientists got a look at this anti-SARS antibody (the white and blue strands) clutching the viral protein (red strands) that gives coronaviruses their spiky appearance. It was a tour-de-force of science to get that image, but of course it came a decade too late to help anyone. So, is there anything we can do to hasten the process this time around?

There is.

Ever heard of the “Hopp and Woods Hydrophilicity Analysis Method?” No. I suppose not, unless you’re a scientist—and then only if you’re a vaccine researcher. But this is a widely used molecular biology method I invented, that has great potential to solve our need for a COVID-19 vaccine. Yesterday, I decided to rev up my old computer program “HYDRO” and have a look at COVID-19 to see what I could see. Wow! Was I surprised!

This Hopp and Woods profile for the spike protein of  COVID-19 may not look like much, but great potential lies within it. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first consider this: the genetic sequence of this virus was published just two weeks ago. Since then scientists have been racing to find ways to make a vaccine, but their best estimates are it may take months or even years to come up with a useful product.

But things could be different this time. It turns out my old method easily spotted a key target on COVID-19’s spiky surface where it can be “neutralized.” The image at right shows the amino acid sequence of the spike protein with the short segment my technique zeroed in on shown in red (Peak 1 in the data plot above). According to Hopp and Woods, this is a prime target for making a synthetic peptide vaccine. A what? It’s a type of vaccine that can be made virtually overnight—well, okay, in three days of hard work and late nights in the lab. Can you imagine the tingling up and down my spine as I stared at the computer screen? Here in this humble plot is the blueprint for a vaccine that could save many lives if only I had the lab facilities and chemicals for the task. I’m still getting chills as I write this.

Though I’m retired, there are many labs around the world fully equipped for this sort of vaccine work. I’ve begun making some inquiries, but the wall of corporate secrecy and people unwilling to discuss ongoing projects makes it hard to know if anyone has adopted the idea. Furthermore, there are defective imitations of my computer methods out there, so some labs might end up with sub-par products. Therefore, I’ve decided to lay this out for all to see and let the chips fall where they may. Maybe somewhere someone will pick up this idea and run with it—and wisely so.

I imagined just the sort of pandemic we now face, when I was a grad student at Cornell Medical College in New York City in 1976. I got the idea to use a computer to quickly scan virus sequences and identify the precise spots where antibodies grab on and block the virus’s ability to spread infection. I worked hard and published the method several years later. The Hopp and Woods algorithm is now used by immunochemists around the world to identify “antigenic determinants” that can serve as vaccines. There are now thousands of reports in the literature of immunizations of this type. However, no one ever developed a human vaccine. Admittedly, there’s a reason for that. You see, the immunity to a Hopp and Woods vaccine does not last all that long, only a few months. So the scientific establishment turned up its nose at my method. But tell me folks—right now, would you settle for a few months of immunity to COVID-19? Duh!

I see the dawn of a new day for the technique I pioneered so long ago, precisely because we need a COVID-19 vaccine YESTERDAY. With CDC, NIH, and WHO promising vaccines next fall or next year, how about one we could start testing in just a few days, folks? As the thrill of seeing how well my technique could work wears off, I’m beginning to get a little frustrated. So, let me appeal for help. If you know someone who knows someone who knows someone else who has a vaccine lab, send them my way, all right? Once the necessary chemicals are in hand, we’ll make a vaccine for COVID-19 in three days, or my name ain’t Hopp… of Hopp and Woods. Here’s a link to the original article.

Now, if you’ll bear with me, I’ll explain in more detail just how my method draws a bullseye on the coronavirus. This image zooms in on the molecular interface between the antibody chains (blue for the antibody’s heavy chain, white for its light chain) and again the viral spike protein in red. The interaction has two parts. On the left, the blue heavy chain entangles one part of the viral protein. On the right the light chain surrounds another part. Notice how that right-hand side of the red chain has several Y-shaped things standing up almost like hairs in an electric field? Those are two of the amino acids in the sequence I highlighted in red above. It is precisely this sort of electrostatic interaction that the Hopp and Woods method seeks out. And it seems to have done its job exceedingly well in this case. It has led us directly to the most important target on the whole coronavirus.

In my years of retirement, I haven’t been completely idle. As an exercise in imagination, I wrote a novel that dramatizes an outbreak of a deadly virus and follows scientists as they come up with—you guessed it—a Hopp and Woods vaccine to try and neutralize the threat. The Smallpox Incident was a forum for me to work out the details of just how such a feat might be accomplished. Maybe it should be required reading for vaccinologists responding to the COVID-19 threat, because it breaks the mold of the old vaccine culture that is currently telling us to wait so long.

Given the gravity of the matter at hand—namely life or death by COVID-19—I think it’s time my old method got a second look. So, again, if you know someone with the ways and means to make synthetic peptide vaccines (there are thousands of labs around the world capable of doing this), then send them my way. I’ll help them make it, and then I’ll take the first injection.

This is Part One of a three-part posting about the vaccine. Here are convenient links to:

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They’re fighting coronavirus with a weapon I designed

Coronavirus. Here’s an image of the enemy. As this killer microbe spreads contagion worldwide, it’s heartening to know scientists are already fighting it with a molecular weapon I created a long time ago. Known to medical researchers by the obscure name “FLAG epitope tag,” it’s essentially a molecular handle they can attach to a virus to manipulate it at the atomic level, pulling it apart and putting it together again (in a biohazard containment facility of course) until they understand what makes it tick… and kill.

It turns out that scientists planted my FLAG on the surface of another member of the coronavirus clan, the SARS virus that caused a lethal epidemic in 2003. Attaching it to one of the protein subunits of the virus’s outer shell, they followed the life cycle as it infected human cells in culture flasks, and learned how that protein, ORF3, does its dirty work.

It seems that ORF3 pokes holes in cell membranes, letting water out as the virus compacts itself and takes on a spherical form as it exits one dying cell to find another victim to infect. The yellow highlight I marked on their summary below pinpoints the crucial role my invention played in their ground-breaking discovery.

I only wish I could say that their research has culminated in a cure, but that day has not arrived just yet. But it is surely coming. Now that scientists know ORF3’s function, they can begin to design drugs that target it, perhaps by plugging the holes it pokes in cells. And when that day comes, humanity will benefit immensely from a treatment now lacking. Many thousands of lives will be saved, thanks in part to a molecular tool I developed so long ago. Even though my career has been sidelined, I am heartened and more than a little humbled to see others still carrying on with my invention. Someday, not only the current COVID-19 coronavirus from Wuhan, but all its evil kin, will be annihilated by drugs targeting ORF3. Mankind will then be able to add coronavirus to the list of permanently defeated pathogens. Let’s all hope that day comes soon.

I’m retired now and my lab days are over, but my old heart is warmed by knowledge that others have taken work I started three decades ago in new directions I couldn’t have imagined when I first published the method (here’s a link to the original article).

May the day of coronavirus’s death come soon. And long live the FLAG!

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Of Tidal Waves and Tunnels and Highway 99

Here’s something scary I came across while researching my novel The Great Seattle Earthquake. The city’s brand-spanking-new Highway 99 tunnel, which plunges well below sea level near the south end of the waterfront is virtually without protection from a tsunami. Given that a major tidal wave ripped through this area 1100 years ago and we’re about due for another one, I get just a little worried thinking about it. Don’t you?

The image above shows an overhead view of the southbound lanes of Highway 99 emerging from the tunnel at ground level–and ground level is very close to sea level here, as I have explained before. Have a look at the area from another perspective:

I took this shot standing on a street corner in the waterfront district of Seattle (the spot appears in the first photo in the upper left corner). At first glance, you don’t see much, do you? Just a couple of stadiums in the background. But pay attention to what’s directly ahead if you want to share my heebie-jeebies. That long, low wall is the only protection those emerging lanes have, should a tidal wave come along. It’s about four feet tall judging by the white car just beyond its left end.

That’s it, folks. As I took the shot I was acutely aware that behind me, only about a city block away, was Puget Sound. Next, I took a hike around to get some other perspectives. Nothing I saw inspired confidence. The northbound lanes also drop into a hole in the ground with equivalent protection–that is, nearly none at all.

Here’s a shot of the northbound on ramp, or should I say down ramp? The lucky folks in the SUV passed through the tunnel and went on their way without interference from either earthquake or tidal wave. But look at the city Transit Authority vehicles to the right. They show, again, that the wall is about four feet high. And wait a minute, the spot where I stood to take the photo has no wall at all. The ramp starts right at ground level and is totally unprotected from a wave bigger than an inch or two tall. And tidal waves get A LOT bigger.

Finally, just for the eeriness factor, consider this shot of workers finishing construction of the northbound entrance about a year ago. Imagine an eight- or ten-foot wall of water pouring over the brink of the wall. It would make a thunderous roar comparable to Snoqualmie Falls and it would fill the tunnel far too quickly for anyone on foot, or in a car, to get out.

Maybe it’s time for some city planners to come up with a disaster-preparedness concept here. I’ve got an idea! How about some bigger walls?

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I saw A’yahos, Seattle’s earthquake serpent spirit

Quileute charmIt isn’t often you come in contact with a spirit creature of ancient legends, is it? I know I can count the times it’s happened to me on the fingers of one hand. Well, actually just the thumb. But it did happen once, and I’ll never forget an instant of the experience–terrifying, mind-boggling, astonishing.

I was at my writing desk in the late morning of February 28, 2001, typing away at my latest novel, when the Nisqually Earthquake ripped loose at magnitude 6.8. My writing office was in a renovated attic room in my house. I recall a loud boom, as if a wrecking ball had hit the place. And I felt the entire house lurch sideways at the same moment.

The kind of panic that strikes when objects you consider immovable or almost so, like my heavy writing desk, heave sideways, carrying you along with them–that sort of panic only hits a person a few times in an entire lifetime. That must explain why I totally forgot the good earthquake advice I had been given since grade school, to drop, cover, and hold on.

Instead, I leapt from my chair before it had even settled and sprinted to the stairway, then down and out onto the back deck. Although ducking under my solid desk and waiting things out was the prudent course, I don’t regret my choice to evacuate post haste, because, you see, that’s what gave me the opportunity to meet A’yahos.

Tillicum AyahosI scurried to the deck’s back railing and held onto it with both hands while the house rocked back and forth, creaking, cracking, and groaning under the strain of the quake energy. Stable on my feet for the moment, I had a chance to look around and, man, what I saw!

The entire neighborhood was rolling like a series of waves underground, moving from the south (the direction of the quake’s origin near Tacoma) to the north, where Seattle would be rocked moments later and the Highway 99 viaduct would nearly collapse (it was later condemned and demolished).

What astonished me most was my neighbor’s yard. I could see his wide lawn rippling like a slithering serpent. Two big trees, one on each side of the yard, swayed like two crazy metronome pointers, swinging together, then apart, then together again in tune with the rolling of the ground swells. All this was accompanied by deep a thunderous rumble emanating from the depths of the earth!

Kwakiutl dancerThen it was over. The land settled and the neighborhood went back to its serene suburban balance. There might have been a dog barking, or a human voice somewhere far off, but peace had returned with little harm done to our home. Some small splits in walls and ceilings, a brick loosened in the chimney, but no major repairs needed. Elsewhere around the region, there were injuries from fallen objects and one death attributed to the quake. We got off easy.

But I’ll never forget the ripples underground or the accompanying thunder on the day I met A’yahos, the Duwamish Tribe’s legendary earthquake serpent spirit. I’m a believer now, because I saw him slithering with my own eyes!


More info on The Great Seattle Earthquake

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How Earthquakes Shaped Seattle’s Landscape

Most people are aware that San Francisco’s north-south trending landscape was shaped by the San Andreas Fault. But who thinks of Seattle that way? Not many. Well, I’m here to tell you otherwise.

As you can see on the map (taken from my novel The Great Seattle Earthquake), the City of Seattle happens to have an earthquake fault running right through it. Fortunately for us, this nasty rip in the fabric of the earth hasn’t let loose a major shakedown in recent history. But the evidence of its past conniptions is there to be seen, and scientists have eyed these landforms with growing concern in recent years. That’s part of what motivated me to write the what-if tale of terror that is The Great Seattle Earthquake. The landscape-altering Seattle Fault is STILL as active as the San Andreas.

Look closely at the map (click or tap it for a larger view). See how Alki Point and Restoration Point on Bainbridge Island seem to point at each other? Of course they do. They are uplifted sections of the Puget Sound seabed, raised in a massive quake that stuck at around 900 AD.

Restoration PtTake a look at these two images of Restoration Point (again, click for a larger view). See those stripes of rock? They might seem reminiscent of geological strata, laid down flat, one on top of the other, then tipped sideways, as is often seen in mountainous regions. But they are not strata. This was a flat portion of the sea floor when the Seattle Fault heaved upward in 900 AD, raising it twenty-five feet into the air. Furthermore, the force of the quake shattered the land in rippling patterns you can still see in these rocks. Wow. What an incredible force it was that moved so much of the earth’s surface up so far, so fast, and did the same on the Alki side of the Sound. Perhaps these ripple marks inspired the legend of A’yahos, the Earthquake Serpent, who Native American storytellers describe as rippling under the surface of the land.

Restoration overheadHave a look at Restoration Point from directly above. Not only are the ripple patterns clear, but notice how some of the strips of rock are jumbled at odd angles. This is the result of what tribal storytellers call “The Day the Rocks Exploded.” And this was long before Europeans arrived with their gunpowder and dynamite. The mind boggles at what the ancient Native Americans saw. Titanic boulders leaping skyward and falling back like scattered hay straws. You can still see these today at Restoration and Alki Points. They form great tide pools where I used to play as a youngster, unperturbed by any notion of their violent origins.

Alki PtThere are other signs of the Seattle Fault’s might and its effect on the area’s inhabitants. At West Point in Discovery Park lie the archeological remnants of Native American camps that span several thousand years of continuous occupation–with a notable hiatus at around 900 AD, when the shell middens and stone tool artifacts disappeared for a century or so following deposition of tidal wave sands several feet thick. That’s right, a tidal wave generated by the earthquake that uplifted Alki and Restoration Points swept over West Point, no doubt drowning any inhabitants and submerging all traces of the encampments there. Furthermore, West Point was once a much larger point, comparable to Alki Point. But the overthrusting of the southern side of the fault drove the lands to the north downward, sinking West Point by several feet, most of it never to rise above tidewater again.

There’s more evidence in our landscape of the rising southern side and sinking northern side of the Fault. Elliott Bay itself is a sunken basin, pushed down and filled with water by the overriding southern heights of West Seattle. And, where is the highest point in all of Seattle? You guessed it, right at the top of West Seattle’s Gatewood Hill.

So next time you’re driving, walking, bussing, training, or biking around our beautiful city, give a thought to how it all came to be. And also give a thought to where you’ll drop, cover, and hang on if a landscape-shaping rupture of the Seattle Fault strikes again.

I have put together a slideshow presentation of this and much more information about the earthquake and tsunami history of the Seattle Area. If you or your group are interested in learning more, you can find further details and contact information HERE.

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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.

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Rugby Daze

I have a life other than authoring natural disaster thrillers like The Great Seattle Earthquake. While watching the royalties and reviews of the new book come in, I have kept tabs on the Rugby World Cup, which is currently playing out in Yokohama, Japan. Once upon a time, I was a rugby player, not a watcher. For eight years, encompassing sixteen seasons, I played the wing and lock positions for Cornell Med in New York City. I was about the scrawniest member ever of a sport well known for brawn, brawling, and beef.

But no one could call me faint-hearted. In one game, I fielded an up-and-under kick, where the ball arched high and I jumped high to catch it only to be slammed down by a chest-high tackle that rattled my head on the ground and knocked me out cold for a few minutes. That happened in the first half, but I was back in the game for the second half, dishing it out as well as I had taken it. There were no cell phones back then, so no footage survives.

However, in another game several years later, I got involved in a head-on collision in a loose ruck. Going in for the ball, I met an opponent doing the same, and a clash of skulls ensued. That’s me at half-time, with a stream of blood splattering down my face from an eyebrow laceration that made me literally see red. It required five stitches later, and left a split-eyebrow scar that I’m still proud of. But at least I finished the game. Not so, the other guy.

Here’s a shot of him leaving the pitch (field) a little early. Well, you can’t see him because he’s already laid out in the back of the ambulance. Too bad he had to go, because we had a great party after, which is a Rugby tradition centered around a keg of beer and many a ribald song and raunchy poem. I ought to know, I often recited Rugby Dick to help Cornell–also known as Big Red–to win the party after if not the game.

If you’d like to learn more about this rough and tumble sport, check out the World Cup at this LINK. It starts with a performance by the New Zealand All Blacks of their legendary challenge to opponents, an authentic Maori Haka chant. Fun stuff.

Bet you didn’t know I was such a brawler in younger years. I’ve set aside the cleats, cup, and jersey, given my advancing age, but those were eight great years of unforgettable, hard charging, high impact, hyper-masculine stuff. Ernest Hemingway, you weren’t so badass.

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