Vulnerability assessments by utilities and emergency planners along the U.S. West Coast suggest it could be weeks or a month or more before water service gets restored after a major earthquake - not to mention electricity, sewage treatment and fuel supply too. The social and economic disruption does not have to be that bad though, given adequate preparedness and investments in critical infrastructure as demonstrated in Japan.
In 1995, a major earthquake struck Seattle's sister city in Japan. The magnitude 6.9 (Richter scale) quake knocked out water, electricity, collapsed a main highway and railway and killed more than 6,000 people in and around Kobe. Fires consumed entire neighborhood blocks because there was no water for firefighters.
Kobe is now in the process of replacing nearly 3,000 miles of cast iron water distribution lines with flexible pipe to make its system earthquake resistant.
"The damage we have received in the earthquake kind of determined that we will do that, replace the pipes,” said Hitoshi Araike, an assistant manager at the Kobe City Waterworks Bureau.
Araike and an interpreter led foreign journalists deep underground to see a new large transmission main that can double as emergency water storage. It cost a fortune -- 37 billion yen ($326.4 million).
He described automatic shutoff valves installed at reservoirs to keep water from draining away through broken mains after a quake. And he showed the flexible pipes and new-style connectors with reinforced sleeves that resist breakage. They are being deployed at both the waterworks and a rebuilt sewage treatment plant.
So how long might water service be out in Kobe after the next great earthquake?
"Once the new technology is in place, I expect zero disruption,” Araike said.
Balancing upgrades and rate hikes
How does this compare to the Pacific Northwest?
"We'd like to get back up and be operating within three to four days. That's our goal from a level of service standpoint” said Jim Miller, engineering superintendent for Everett Public Works.
This month, contractors are at work reinforcing walls and ceilings to earthquake-proof the operations building at Everett's drinking water treatment plant. It serves 600,000 people across Snohomish County, Washington.
Miller said his utility assessed its earthquake vulnerability and has prioritized a list of improvements. Next, the Public Works Department wants to install flexible joints at some pipeline water crossings. Everett's full list of seismic upgrades could take 20 years to complete. The cost would be folded into multiple rate increases.
Miller said rate hikes above the pace of inflation inevitably draw pushback.
"If we did nothing, that's more business as usual and you could keep rates lower,” he said. “But we've found people for the most part expect a reliable system. Once they understand what it's for, they seem—in fact our wholesale customers have actually encouraged us to make our system more resilient."
Everett is one of the big three drinking water suppliers in the central Puget Sound Water Supply Forum—alongside Seattle and Tacoma. The forum recently estimated outage times for a big offshore earthquake and close-by shallow ones. Their analysis found it currently could take up to 60 days to restore service to most customers.
Seattle Public Utilities aims to finish a comprehensive vulnerability assessment of its own by the end of this year.
“SPU is planning to survey several hundred residents that represent Seattle’s demographics to provide their opinions about different seismic resiliency levels and cost,” the agency said in an emailed summary. “The goal of this survey is to learn what people are prepared to spend on seismic upgrades. Once SPU determines the desired balance between seismic resiliency and system improvement costs, SPU will develop a detailed seismic improvement plan and program.”
SPU said it has invested $60 million in seismic upgrades to existing water infrastructure to date—such as switching from above-ground to buried reservoirs—and that’s only a start.
Meanwhile, Miller said he anticipates having a discussion with the Everett City Council soon about the cost-benefit tradeoffs of various degrees of investment to prepare for a rare, but potentially catastrophic event.
In Oregon, a state resilience plan set a goal for water supply systems to be mostly operational within two weeks after a Cascadia megaquake.
"We're nowhere close to that," said Theresa Elliott, Portland Water Bureau chief engineer at a conference earlier this spring.
Readiness suggested, not required
Kobe got massive disaster recovery aid from the national government to get to the position of being one of the most earthquake resilient cities in the world now. Pacific Northwest states and utilities can’t count on the same largesse.
"There's awareness as to the catastrophic damage a subduction zone earthquake could cause (in the Pacific Northwest), but these events don't occur with the same frequency as in Japan. The last one here was more than 300 years ago," observed University of British Columbia Professor David Edgington. He researches the Japanese response to natural disasters and authored "Reconstructing Kobe."
Earthquake resilience experts in both Oregon and Washington state delivered nearly identical recommendations a few years ago. They said the states should require utilities to do vulnerability assessments and make plans to mitigate the deficiencies. That remains largely a suggestion, not a requirement.
Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission Director Steve King made that point to Gov. Jay Inslee at a subcabinet meeting earlier this month.
"One of the things that is a gap is explicit statutory authority is needed if you want to pursue an effort to increase resiliency over a 50 year timespan," King said.
The Resilient Washington State Subcabinet brings together a range of state agency leaders who are working on fresh recommendations to the governor for how to improve earthquake and tsunami readiness.
The current projections for long outages of vital services mean you need to prepare to survive on your own. State and federal emergency managers used to recommend that families stockpile enough food, water and medicines to last three days. Now Oregon and Washington suggest people in earthquake country prepare a kit with two weeks' worth of supplies.