The other week I included a sobering story from the New Yorker in Dispatches from the Future of Museums*. The Really Big One, by Kathryn Shulz, looks at the Cascadia fault line that runs for 700 miles down the coast of the Pacific Northwest, From Cape Mendocino California up to Vancouver.
At some point geologic slippage in this fault zone will result in an earthquake somewhere
between magnitude 8.0 and 9.2 on the Richter
scale. For reference: the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and resulting Tsunami killed
more than eighteen thousand people and triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima
nuclear power plant. It did somewhere around two hundred and twenty billion in
impact to least 353 cultural landmarks, and destroyed a number of museums.
|Image from National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center|
In forecasting terminology, Earthquakes are “disruptive events,” in this case, events for which we know more or less what will happen, but can’t pinpoint when. As Shulz reports, scientists estimate the chance of a Cascadian earthquake in the vicinity of 8.0 in the next 50 years at roughly one in three, and of a “very big one” in the 9.2 range as one in ten.
Those are pretty bad odds, if you ask me, particularly for museums dedicated to preserving their collections for future generations.
What will the country (and museums) be dealing with when this quake occurs? Quoting Shulz,
“In the Pacific Northwest, the area of impact will cover some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people. When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America. Roughly three thousand people died in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. Almost two thousand died in Hurricane Katrina. Almost three hundred died in Hurricane Sandy. FEMA projects that nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. Another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, and the agency expects that it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million.”
Or putting it more succinctly, the director of the FEMA division responsible for this region said “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”
In the face of these projections, what are we to do? As individuals, family members, community members—and museum professionals—what real choices do we make (other than ignoring the forecast)?
The barriers—psychological, cultural, logistic and economic—to doing anything are huge, but I would argue that to fulfill their public trust, museums in the Northwest have to prepare for “the very big one.” Hard choices might include:
· Identifying artifacts and specimens of such overwhelming importance that they ought to be reposited in other museums
· Jointly or individually creating inland storage facilities for collections of high value (monetary, historic, artistic, cultural or scientific)
· Relocating to the most stable location in their existing community, into buildings with state-of-the art earthquake resilience
We all face a range of risk every day—from bicycling to work to living in tornado corridor. But sometimes these risk rise to a level that demands a different kind of attention. In addition to raising awareness of the need for museums to grapple with extreme risk (whether in the Northwest Coast or elsewhere in the country or the world), I’m writing this post in the hope that you will tell me how you face these hard choices—personally or professionally. Please do share how you, or your museum, is grappling with the prospect of “the very big one.”
*Dispatches from the Future of Museums is CFM’s free weekly e-newsletter. You can access past issues and subscribe here.