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Cascadia’s Fault

How Cascadia’s Fault Shifted… From Documentary to Book

As the West Coast correspondent for CBC National News in the mid-1980s, I had a fair amount of influence over the kinds of stories we covered. The city of Vancouver and the province of British Columbia were my territory and I was expected to know the local and regional issues well enough to advise senior editors in Toronto about which story ought to be on the national newscast on any given night. It was a fabulous and very busy posting that required an air traffic controller’s ability to track dozens of moving objects along with a firefighter’s ability to scramble out the door on a moment’s notice to deal with a breaking story that I’d know nothing about until I got there. For three intense years, I thought surely I had the best job in Canada.

With an area of 944,735 square kilometres—larger than France and Germany combined; larger than Washington, Oregon and California combined—we had a lot of ground to cover. By we, I mean the four of us in the Vancouver bureau: Robb Douglas, cameraman; Gunter Mende, sound recordist; and Rene Proulx, editor and jack of all trades when it came to getting a story cut and polished and bounced off a satellite in time to make the first edition of The National. The four of us were a tight little team, a guerilla squad working for what was arguably (at that time) one of the best television news operations in the world.

When I shifted to the documentary unit of a nightly current affairs program called The Journal, life became even more interesting. Now, instead of two-minute stories that had to be shot, edited and aired the same day, I was hustling 15-to-30-minute features on a three-week turnaround covering issues and events that took me all over the world. Instead of having a specific territory or beat, I became a general assignment journalist with relatively little to say about which stories I covered. So the fire hall analogy still applied but the air traffic control function was gone. That was fine by me because I got an education every three weeks and saw more of the world in eight fast years than I had any right to expect.

As I neared the end of one story, a call would come from The Journal assignment desk in Toronto with what seemed like the luck of the draw: “Hey JT, when you’re done with those Russian soldiers who defected to New York from Afghanistan, we want you to double back to the West Coast and find out what Canada’s geologists learned from that huge earthquake that just happened in Mexico City…” This would have been the winter of 1985.

While still in New York filming Red Army refugees hiding out in New Jersey, I also got a call from my cameraman buddy, Robb Douglas, who was in Mexico City covering the ongoing disaster. Ten thousand people were dead; another 50,000 had been injured and a quarter million more were homeless. Standing in the rubble of a collapsed apartment block thirty-six hours after the initial shockwave (magnitude 8 on the old Richter scale), the earth started rumbling and shaking again in a magnitude 7.5 aftershock. Two thirty-story buildings looming directly over Robb’s head were bending and swaying like tall trees in a hurricane. It was one of the scariest things he’d ever seen—and Robb’s the kind of guy who doesn’t get rattled by much.

I would eventually learn that this earthquake had come as a bit of a surprise to the scientific community. Mexico had endured plenty of tragic temblors over the years but the fault in question (offshore, 190 miles southwest of Mexico City, hidden beneath thousands of feet of seawater and therefore nearly impossible to study) was supposed to be a special case—what they called an aseismic zone—meaning that it was not expected to rupture in a giant, megathrust quake. But then it did. And now the best and brightest minds in geology and seismology were scrambling to figure out why. And JT was expected to master “the earthquake portfolio” in a big hurry.

Off I went, plunging into a subject I knew almost nothing about, reading files and cramming as fast as I could, hoping to come up to speed quickly enough to understand what the scientists would tell me. I’d taken exactly one entry-level geology course in university fifteen years earlier, so I had only a dim recollection of the theory of plate tectonics—called “continental drift” back in my college days—which was still controversial and still a black box of unanswered questions.

I was dimly aware of the infamous Ring of Fire that circles the Pacific but had never stopped to think how this fractured grid of constantly moving slabs of the earth’s crust might affect those of us living in the Pacific Northwest. Unlike Californians, the residents of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia in 1985 had not yet experienced a large, destructive earthquake. If we thought about dangerous geology at all, we mostly thought of the San Andreas. Earthquake country?—that’s California, right?

Wrong. What hardly anyone outside the confines of seismic research labs knew at the time was that we habitants of the Pacific Northwest do in fact live within striking distance of a hidden, offshore fault (known as the Cascadia Subduction Zone) that looks and behaves exactly like the one that wrecked Mexico City. As we began work on a new documentary, the first thing Canada’s earthquake scientists told me was that Cascadia’s fault had also been thought of as an anomaly—an aseismic zone, like the one off the coast of Mexico. Since it had not ruptured in “all of recorded history,” even the experts thought of Cascadia as relatively benign.

For reasons unknown the two plates in question here seemed to be slipping past each other without getting stuck, without building up pressure, and without earth-shattering temblors. But—if they’d been wrong about Mexico, then they might be wrong about the Cascadia fault as well. Meaning that scientists were beginning to think there’s no such thing as a quake-free fault zone. And therefore, the Pacific Northwest from mid-Vancouver Island to Washington State and down the Oregon coast to Cape Mendocino in northern California should expect exactly the same kind of shockwave that had hit Mexico. As we filmed our very first interview, the official estimated risk of a magnitude-8 (or higher) quake off Canada’s west coast was revised from a 50-50 chance to 70-30 odds in favour.

But there were many things the scientists still didn’t know: if Cascadia was not quake-free, when was the last jolt? And why didn’t we already know about it? The elders of aboriginal tribes living along the coast from BC to California all told stories—part of their traditional oral histories—of what sounded like a huge earthquake and tsunami that happened “long, long ago…” But where was the physical evidence? Monster quakes like the one in Mexico City tend to leave scars. So where were ours?

Over the next twenty-plus years I worked on five updates of our original earthquake film for the CBC (I also wrote a magazine feature and eventually—my first book) and each time I dipped back in to the story, some new piece of the puzzle had been fitted into place. “Quake Hunters,” those muddy-boot detectives trying to solve the mysteries of these enormous cracks in the earth’s crust, had slowly but steadily advanced the science another notch. There were clever breakthroughs along with plenty of frustrating setbacks.

It turns out that “all of recorded history” (which on the West Coast is little more than the 150 years since Europeans arrived and began writing things down) was simply not enough data. We recent humans just hadn’t looked far enough back in the rock and mud timelines to see the evidence that was always there. Proof of giant quakes was definitely findable, but it took a lot of digging—and then a whole lot of scientific debate about what the evidence actually meant. The Cascadia story was a potboiler, a fascinating and scary mystery. And I just couldn’t let it go.

The odds went from 70-30 in favour to a 100-percent certainty. The Cascadia quake is coming—beyond any reasonable scientific doubt. Unlike the San Andreas, which ruptures in localized segments (hitting San Francisco or Los Angeles, but never both cities at the same time), the Cascadia fault can and does rip from end-to-end all at once. A “full-margin rupture” like this could damage five major cities (Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, Portland and Sacramento, with hundreds of smaller towns in between) all at the same time.

A disaster on that geographic scale has never happened before in North America. No one really knows how well thousands of high-rise buildings would survive up to five minutes of violent shaking. The worst-case scenario would include not just physical damage to the West Coast but also a severe blow to the entire North American economy. Worse than Hurricane Katrina, worse than Hurricane Sandy—one geologist says it will be like having five Katrinas on the same day. It could take a decade to recover.

There will probably be another huge tsunami, just like the long train of killer waves that swept the Indian Ocean in 2004 and the coast of Japan in 2010. Quake hunters have now found evidence of more than 40 Cascadia “events” in the last 10,000 years—19 of them full-margin ruptures. They have confirmed that the last Cascadia quake was at roughly nine o’clock at night on January 26th, 1700. They know stress has been building along the zone for 315 years since that last jolt but they still can’t predict when the fault will break again. It could be 200 years from now. Or it could be tonight. Only one thing is certain: the next Cascadia megathrust is one day closer today than it was yesterday.

Anyway, with a brief call from the assignment desk in Toronto in the winter of 1985, I became the designated earthquake reporter for The Journal. I built up a very thick research file over next two decades, far more material than I could ever fit in a fifteen- or thirty-minute documentary. Even when we filmed a two-hour special after the Sumatra/Indian Ocean disaster of 2004, I still couldn’t tell everything I knew. There were always fascinating anecdotes and details that got left out. And the story—the science of subduction zones and their monster quakes and killer waves—has continued to evolve. There’s new stuff being published all the time.

When I met publisher Anna Porter (founder and former owner of Key Porter Books in Toronto) while filming a doc on refugees from the Hungarian uprising of 1956, she happened to read my outline for the two-hour earthquake special for CBC and said, offhandedly, “You realize there’s a book in this, don’t you?” And I thought—yes, you’re absolutely right.

She alerted several of her editor friends that I would be in touch. Thus the story of Cascadia’s Fault matured from a half-dozen documentary films to a bright red book published by HarperCollins Canada (and Counterpoint Press in the U.S.) in March 2010. The opportunity to peel apart the paradox of a deadly but deceptively quiet fault, to untangle Cascadia’s threads from continental drift in the 1950s to Japan’s Tohoku disaster of 2010, was more satisfying than any work I’d done in years. Over the course of four decades in television I had filmed hundreds of stories that I knew were “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Now, finally, I was getting below the surface.