"Are we ready? No way," Bill Steele, a member of the seismology lab at the University of Washington in Seattle, told the Longview Daily News.
Recent research indicates that major subduction earthquakes such as the 2011 temblor in Japan have shaken western Oregon and Washington once every 300 to 600 years on average, the newspaper reported. The last great Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake occurred 312 years ago in 1700, but it is difficult to know when the next one will hit because the interval between these great earthquakes is highly irregular.
Still, Steele said there's a 15 percent chance the next one will occur in 50 to 60 years.
"We know another one is coming, and we can't be complacent -- what a shame to wait until after the disaster to start doing something about it," Steele said.
More evacuation routes, wide roads and vertical tsunami shelters are needed to ensure that large numbers of people would be able get to safety, he added.
Northwest communities have placed a priority on warning systems but not enough on evacuation facilities and caring for people once a quake hits, said Chris Goldfinger, a researcher at the Oregon State University Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore.
Very little has been spent to retrofit buildings or to build vertical evacuation structures on the coast to shelter people from tsunamis, he said.
Public interest in emergency preparedness spiked after last year's Japanese earthquake and tsunami, but faded rapidly, emergency managers said.
Getting people to spend money and time preparing for an event that seems abstract and rare is a challenge for emergency managers, said Grover Laseke, who oversees emergency management for Cowlitz County.
Families should have clearly defined plans, as well as sufficient supplies of medication, water and food, he and others said.
"It's gonna be chaos," Laseke said. "We would see a loss of bridges and overpasses. Our ability to get around would be affected. Our water systems would be out of commission. Electricity and telephones would be affected, and buildings would collapse. And there will be dead people. ... People have to be prepared for that."
Stephanie Fritts, who oversees emergency management for Pacific County, said people shouldn't assume they'll be able to leave earthquake disaster zones, which could cover a swath of the region from Northern California to Vancouver, British Columbia.
"Overall, you're not going to be able to drive," Fritts said, "People ask, 'What do I do in a worst case scenario?' and I say, 'You're gonna walk,' and they look at me and they're dumbfounded."
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