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Margaret Wente

Next time, Japan could be us Add to ...

The images are straight from a Hollywood disaster epic. Cars are swept off roads, tossed around like Dinky Toys and reduced to scrap. A ship is thrown into a bridge and smashed to bits. A tidal wave engulfs an entire village and washes it away in minutes. Other villages are reduced to matchsticks and mud. Not a single landmark has been left standing. You couldn't help but think of Hiroshima after the bomb struck.

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Everybody has a camera and an Internet connection, so these images are flashed around the world in seconds. The disaster seems as if it's right next door, unfolding in real time, and the survivors seem like neighbours. "I lost my daughter," one woman said. The waves had carried her away. "I hope she's somewhere safe." Another woman had lost everything - home, possessions, village, family. "I don't know if it's good or bad that I survived," she told us. Countless people lost everything they had.

The disaster in Japan was both predictable and horrifying. Earthquakes are a fact of life there, so Japan created the best earthquake protection in the world. It has an effective advance warning system, and everyone gets earthquake training from the time they're tiny tots. Yet, even the greatest safeguards that humans can devise are no match for nature's fury. No one thought the tsunami that followed the quake would wash away entire towns. No one believed Japan's nuclear reactors would be vulnerable to natural disasters. They were wrong.

We could be next. A mega-quake in the Pacific Northwest, triggered by a shift in the great Cascadia fault, is a certainty, experts say. The last Cascadia quake, estimated at magnitude 9 (the same as Japan's), occurred in 1700. We know this because the tsunami generated by that quake reached as far as Japan. Geologist Chris Goldfinger, of Oregon State University, says we can expect a magnitude 9 earthquake in the northern section of Cascadia about once every 260 years. In other words, we're due.

"The tsunami we're seeing [in Japan]is like the one we would see from a great Cascadia event," says John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network. A Japan-sized quake would destroy fuel pipelines, petroleum storage tanks, ports, electrical transmission lines and communications networks. The tsunami would devastate low-lying coastal communities. Although Seattle and Vancouver would be spared the worst tsunami effects, the quake would destroy houses, schools, highways and bridges. Hundreds of high-rises, constructed before stricter building codes took effect, would be at high risk of collapse. "We are not nearly as prepared," says Mr. Vidale.

Haiti's earthquake was horrifying because of the tremendous loss of life, and because it made the hopeless situation of the people even worse. But it's hard for most of us to identify with wretched Haiti. Japan - highly developed, highly complex and well endowed with talent and riches - seems far more familiar. And although the death toll in Japan is negligible by comparison with Haiti, the destruction of the world they've built is much greater. Those people in Japan could be us.

We shouldn't really be so amazed by such calamities, I suppose. In geological time, it's only been an eye blink since human beings inhabited Earth and began to build on it. Despite everything we do, nature is sometimes a lot stronger than we are. The truth is, we all live on a fault line. And it can rupture at any moment.

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