Theresa and Richard Grimes keep their emergency suitcases packed and ready to go. As on-call American Red Cross disaster service volunteers, the husband and wife — together and individually — have deployed many times with less than 24 hours’ notice.
“If they call me today at 3 o’clock, I’m ready to go tomorrow morning,” Theresa said.
Among The Red Cross Cascades — which serves Oregon and Southwest Washington — the Grimeses are two of approximately 2,500 regional volunteers and 1,400 disaster relief volunteers who drop everything to help survivors. Responsibilities are wide-ranging yet typically involve food and water distribution and sheltering concerns.
However eerily, the Grimeses — and the Red Cross — know their next deployment may be in their own backyard in response to Cascadia Rising, the catch-all term for the earthquake and tsunami that seismologists say are poised to strike the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s easy to think, ‘It’ll never happen to me,’” she said. “Even I think that — it’s human nature. But Mother Nature has no boundaries.”
As a way to spread awareness about Cascadia Rising, the Red Cross has launched its Prepare Out Loud presentation throughout Western and Central Oregon.
The presentation, which began in June and has reached 2,000 people, is a Cascadia earthquake crash-course. It covers the science and history of the Cascadia subduction zone, human behavior during disasters, what to expect during and after an earthquake, how to locate loved ones and how much food, water and supplies a person will need.
Steven Eberlein, a Red Cross foundations director and the presentation’s creator, is particularly concerned about what he calls the culture of preparedness.
“The cultural problem we have with preparedness is we don’t expect each other to prepare. It’s not part of our social dynamic yet,” he said. Cascadia earthquake preparation will catch on the same way people quit smoking and began wearing seat belts — when people see their peers changing their behaviors.
Based in Portland, Eberlein, 39, said Prepare Out Loud was inspired by his relief work in Sri Lanka after the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. He was already there, working as a teacher for a different international aid organization, when a subduction zone earthquake off the coast of Indonesia — more than 1,000 miles away — sent a massive wave rolling westward. Sri Lanka didn’t feel the 9.0-magnitude earthquake but its tsunami killed more than 30,000 people on the island alone.
The pending Cascadia earthquake, if it’s a full rip along its 700-mile fault line, will also register around 9 on the Richter Scale. Earthquakes this strong shake for four to six minutes. Eberlein said Cascadia Rising will be on par with the earthquakes and tsunamis that originated near Indonesia and, in 2011, Japan — two of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded.
The Cascadia subduction zone, located 80 miles from the Pacific Northwest coast and running parallel, stretches from Northern California to Vancouver Island. Along this fault line, the Juan de Fuca oceanic plate is sliding gradually under the North American tectonic plate. Over time, pressure has gradually accumulated, which unleashes a massive earthquake and resultant tsunami, on average, every 243 years. As scientists have recently learned, the Cascadia subduction zone is 76 years overdue.
From California to Canada, 7 million people will be directly impacted by just the shaking, said Eberlein. This makes it a much more difficult relief operation than, say, a San Francisco earthquake where the damage is relatively isolated and relief is more easy brought from the outside.
According to a 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker article, the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates 13,000 people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. The odds of a Cascadia earthquake and tsunami happening in the next 50 years are about 1 in 3.
“Right now we have a situation where millions of us will directly impacted by the largest natural disaster to ever hit North America,” Eberlein said.
Richard Grimes, 74, who is also a Red Cross Cascades board member and head of sheltering, said he was briefed about Cascadia Rising years ago during his 26-year tenure as a police officer in Eugene. Now living in Bend (he said the move had nothing do with Cascadia Rising), the Grimeses attend the Red Cross Cascades Disaster Academy in Salem twice a year where they take refresher courses. Volunteers learn how to administer relief to the survivors of a variety of disasters, including floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes and wildfires.
“We’ve taken every class you can take. On paper we’re qualified to do anything the Red Cross wants us to take,” Richard said. He also attended a weeklong Cascadia Rising exercise a few months ago that simulated disaster scenarios in Central Oregon. In one simulation, the Wickiup Dam ruptured, and he and his team were responsible for sheltering 10,000 people displaced from the La Pine area.
“That was an eye-opener,” Richard said. “We thought we would use the fairgrounds as a sheltering spot for refugees, but they said ‘No, you can’t use that area because FEMA is going to be using it.’”
Eberlein said preparation for a natural disaster ultimately comes down to the individual. He recommends visiting “Aftershock,” an Oregon Public Radio’s interactive online feature, where users punch in their zip code and learn about their area’s seismic risks and what they can do to prepare. Of Bend, the site says: “The shaking here is moderate. You feel it. It wakes up anyone who’s sleeping. Books and knick-knacks are falling off shelves. Windows and dishes are breaking.” It may take several weeks for Bend to repair damages to its natural gas lines, according to the site.
Eberlein said, “No one has power over time and space. After an emergency, we expect help, but there is no magic button to get you everything you need. Today is when you have power over time and space.”
Answering a call
The Grimeses have responded to numerous natural disasters, including the December 2015 floods in Portland and Seattle. In 2005, Theresa helped out in Louisiana for 31 days after Hurricane Katrina. She recently deployed to the area again; this time to Baton Rouge, where she served meals to flood survivors from a Red Cross emergency response vehicle. It was her eighth deployment in 14 months.
“You have to take a break,” said Theresa, 64, adding that between the heat, humidity and the physical and emotional toll “it was the hardest work I ever did.”
Theresa described a lasting memory serving meals in a Baton Rogue apartment complex. She met parents of two young children who lost their jobs because of flooding, and they were in the process of losing their apartment, too, which was succumbing to mold. Being able to provide sustenance to their two young children was the parents’ top priority. Theresa said she was gratified to guarantee them two hot daily meals. Before she returned to Bend, Theresa said she made it clear to the survivors there would be a Red Cross volunteer to take her place.
“Being there, (showing) affection, understanding, giving a hug, a smile” goes a long way, she said. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7816, firstname.lastname@example.org