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Is Our Fear of Earthquakes Grounded in Facts?

The Pacific Northwest is preparing itself for the big one  a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake that could devastate the region. (USGS/Wikimedia Commons)
The Pacific Northwest is preparing itself for the big one a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake that could devastate the region. (USGS/Wikimedia Commons)
March 19, 2018

PORTLAND, Ore. – The scene starts with the ground shaking violently. By the end, there's mass pandemonium. Disaster movies frequently depict earthquakes and the devastation a big one could bring.

But do they contribute to an irrational fear?

A poll of 1,100 people from the website Sperling's Best Places reveals that more than one in five Americans fear earthquakes more than any other natural disaster.

However, other disasters are more deadly. Since 1990, more than 3,300 Americans have died in hurricanes; in that same period, 71 have died in earthquakes.

Bertrand Sperling, an author, researcher and the chief operating officer of Sperling's Best Places, breaks down why earthquakes might seem scarier.

"They're just more scary on a very elemental, psychological level," he said. "You've got the earth moving, literally beneath your feet. I mean, there's our terra firma, the thing that we walk around on. What happens if we get sucked into the earth, or buildings fall? It's kind of the most violent."

In the Pacific Northwest, there are fears that a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake could devastate the region. Sperling observed that the media has contributed to the fear that the region is due for a big one, even though there is no certainty when it will happen.

Oregon's Department of Geology and Mineral Industries recently modeled a magnitude 9 quake in the Portland metro area and found it would be devastated, although some of that could be avoided with infrastructure upgrades.

Earthquakes are catastrophic in other parts of the world. Over the past decade, nearly 800,000 people have died from these disasters globally.

Sperling pointed out that the United States' infrastructure has saved many lives, plus the fact that earthquakes are infrequent in this country.

"Earthquakes are a terrifying occurrence," he explained. "Because we don't have the data points, they're almost a mythological thing. So, it's something that you're afraid of, but that doesn't really affect you on a daily basis, or even every 25 years or so."

Oregon continues to study the potential of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and how to protect homes and buildings from such a disaster.

Since 1990, drought, winter storms, flooding, wildfires, and seven major storms such as tornadoes have been more deadly and cost more in damage than earthquakes.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR