Book Review: Quakeland

I grew up in northwest Louisiana.  In terms of natural disasters, the only things we ever had to be concerned with were floods and tornadoes.  While there were close brushes with both when I was a kid — I remember one frantic afternoon when my sister and I scrambled around our house, picking everything up off the floor because the bayou down the road was threatening to go over its banks — the weather was at least predictable.  You could see the twister-producing storms barreling across north Texas on the TV weather report; you could see the water falling from the sky and know whether it was enough to raise the river or not.

California, where I’ve lived for the last five years, is another story, because California has earthquakes.  You can’t see earthquakes coming.  That’s a really fun thought for me, since I live five miles from the San Andreas fault and have two little kids and a neurotic dog and a houseful furniture that isn’t bolted to the wall.

When I picked up Quakeland, by Kathryn Miles, I thought the book was going to be about California, because where the heck else would “Quakeland” be, right? I thought I was going to read about the Bay Area, with its terrifyingly not-earthquake-safe highrises and its multiple faults due to rupture and its millions of people crammed into a small area.

But Quakeland isn’t about California.  Instead, it’s about how the actions of human beings have had a significant effect on seismic activity across the entirety of the United States.  That’s right! Faults exist all across our country — we don’t even know where most of them are — and when you drive a mine through them, or put a reservoir on top of them, or shoot water into them, well, then, you get earthquakes in places like Colorado and Oklahoma and Ohio.

While we know human activities in the heartland of the United States can cause earthquakes, we don’t really understand where the upper limit is for human-caused seismic activity.  The earthquakes in the Denver area — caused by the pumping far below ground of toxic waste from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal — went on for a couple of decades after the government quit disposing of its waste this way.  What will happen in Oklahoma, then, with all of the water that’s been dumped into wells there? How long will the earthquakes last? How big can they get?

While human-caused seismic activity affects many parts of the United States, earthquakes happen naturally in parts of the country other than the West Coast — Yellowstone and the New Madrid fault zone are two places that Miles talks about extensively.  Which leads Miles to wonder: if earthquakes are happening in so many parts of the country, or if they could happen in so many places, what can we do to be prepared for them?

About a year ago, I decided it was finally time to put together an earthquake kit for my family, using a list I found on the FEMA website.  While I managed to stock up on a number of items, the list was long, and I took a break from building my kit and haven’t returned to it.  Given the amount of stuff FEMA thought I should have on hand in the case of an earthquake, I wonder how poor families in California — and in any earthquake-prone area, really — can afford to do anything more than make the most basic preparations.  Also, my apartment is tiny: where am I supposed to put all this crap?

But let’s put that question aside for the moment.  As Miles points out, there are things I can do to prepare myself and my family for an earthquake.  We can practice what we’d do if an earthquake occurs; I can have all of our important information in a go bag; I can stash water and peanut butter crackers in the car (we’re a hiking family; we already do that anyway).  Finances aren’t a limitation here — it’s just remembering to do these few small but important items on my to-do list.

Here’s another fun read: a New Yorker article from a couple of years ago about the Cascadia subduction zone and the potential for a giant tsunami.  This piece freaked several of my friends in the Pacific Northwest right out.  Miles briefly touches on prepping for tsunamis in this part of the U.S. in Quakeland.

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