Book 538: Quakeland – Kathryn Miles

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one when the publisher reached out to me about a few books way back in August of last year.* Quakeland caught my eye for the very reason any of those disaster movies (TwisterThe Day After TomorrowSan Andreas, Volcano, etc.) speak out to millions of people every year. We’re fascinated by the potential destruction and yet completely disbelieving that it could happen to us. Fun fact, it can and will at some point (maybe not the Volcano story line) but according to this and a lot of scientists earthquakes could!

The book started off a little slow after a powerful forward, but picked up pace the further I got into it, which was weird because the amount of science seemed to increase and I usually fall asleep when books get too technical.

There was so much in the book to unpack that it’s hard to write about it succinctly. By far I think the biggest takeaway was that almost to a fault (hardy har har) no matter where you are in the US with the exception of a few pockets, there is a chance of an earthquake and scientists can’t really predict it. Scientists can’t predict it for a multitude of reasons including that many of the places where earthquakes could happen are unmapped or unknown.

The next biggest takeaway to me was that more than likely it’s going to be humans that cause the next massive earthquake. This isn’t necessarily true, but those were the scariest parts of this book reading about the fracking and high pressure hydrology mines that change the stability of a location and surrounding areas in addition to the unpredictable nature of earthquakes and bouncing around zones. (I sort of think of them like cluster migraines where you don’t know where they’re going to hit and they just do and there’s no rhyme or reason.) The reason this is scary is because we don’t know where so many of the faults are or how they will react and yet we’re doing these horrible things to the earth anyway and not really caring about the consequences.

And even if we don’t cause the earthquake someone is going to be there to spin the disaster in another way. I shouldn’t have been as shocked as I was to read this about what happened after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake:

“The mortar had not long settled when the Structural Engineers Association recommended that the city move away from brick and masonry construction during its rebuilding, but it met with fierce opposition from bricklayers unions. Their objections were paltry, however, compared to those lobbied by the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, whose very profits depended upon people and companies willing to come to San Francisco. In an attempt to reverse their plummeting stock losses, railway executives launched an elaborate PR campaign arguing that it was the subsequent fire, and not the earthquake itself, that damaged the city. Their passenger agent, James Hornsbaugh Jr., dedicated himself to the task, penning article after article in the railway’s magazine assuring passengers and investors that seismicity wasn’t a problem in the Bay Area. He also wrote to chambers of commerce around the country, beseeching them to cajole scholars and newspapers to focus on the fire rather than the quake. ‘Have them  show how little an area the earthquake really affected,’ he pleaded. ‘How quickly the city and state recovered, that the burned city was an old city, and that only the most ancient part of the water-supply system failed.'” (259-260, emphasis mine)

I mean there’s a reason people call corporations evil and this just goes to show how long that’s been happening. Reading this and reading about the dozens of earthquakes Miles discusses in the book made me realize how few of them actually make the news. So many are mentioned and then they disappear into the ether without the follow-up – similar to hurricanes and tornados where they happen, people’s lives are ruined and they have to figure out how to move forward, but those of us not there to experience it everyday move on the next day.

I found this cool resource if you want to see where earthquakes are happening around the world: USGS 2.5+ earthquakes (I’ve watched three appear on there, two in Alaska and one in Fiji). And Miles recommends the MyShake app for Android and I found the MyQuake app for Apple, both by the UC Berkeley Seismology Lab (UC Berkeley app website). Not only does it help report earthquakes in your area it also shows historical quakes. It doesn’t show too many on the east coast, I guess not a lot of people have downloaded it, but there are TONS on the west coast.

Recommendation: Definitely worth the read. If you don’t want to read it or don’t have time, at the very least the Afterword is worth a read as it gives you a few quick steps that you can do anywhere in the world to be prepared for the inevitable. This book made me think about natural disasters, human nature, and human response/community. Miles did a great job of highlighting the unknown and what scientists are currently working on to find answers to the unknown and hammered home the importance of individuals and communities having plans for the inevitable earthquakes that will happen whenever they do in the US.

*I received a copy of Quakeland from the publisher in return for my honest opinion. No goods or cash were received.

Opening Line: “Two years ago, a good friend returned from a mapmakers’ conference with a gift for me: an enormous poster of the world.”

Closing Line: “We need to believe earthquake scientists when they tell us that the big one is coming. While it would be great if we find the technology to predict it, chances are that’s not going to be possible in time. So it falls to all of us, both as individuals and as communities, to confront the risk this future event poses. If you live in Florida or North Dakota, that risk may be small enough to warrant little action (though certainly other natural disasters like tornados and hurricanes are  more than real enough for you to take many of the same preventative steps you would if you lived in a more earthquake-prone zone). If you live on the Eastern seaboard, if you live in a lot of the Midwest, or on the West Coast or in Utah or Oklahoma or Texas, or Alaska or Hawaii, your risk is real. It’s up to you to be ready for it.” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction.)

Additional Quotes from Quakeland
“If you think these runways matter only to the people in the [Memphis, TN] region awaiting relief and supplies, you’re mistaken. A 2012 study by the University of Memphis estimated the economic impact of the airport at around $23 billion annually. At least $22 billion of that comes from cargo. Just about every Amazon order you place, every prescription you fill, every part your mechanic needs to fix your car, touches down on this same airstrip. Here, UPS maintains their third-largest hub, which is also their only hub capable of processing both ground and air freight. (Their crowned jewel world hub—a sprawling 5.2-million-square-foot complex capable of handling 115 packages a second—is located in Louisville, which is also in the New Madrid damage zone.) But the real elephant in the room that is Memphis International is FedEx. They’ve based their operations there since 1973 and, in many ways, define the airport.

On any given day, the airport lands about ninety-four commercial flights. FedEx brings in well over 200. Only Hong Kong International Airport is bigger in terms of cargo, and FedEx dominates that landscape, too.” (136-137)

“The USGS [United States Geological Survey] estimates that approximately 7 million people live in areas that have seen a notable increase in hazards created by induced earthquakes. That includes significant population centers like Dallas and Oklahoma City. Looking at the new hazard maps, there’s no denying it: A big red bull’s-eye surrounds the area.” (215-216)



6 thoughts on “Book 538: Quakeland – Kathryn Miles”

  1. We had a tsunami warning last month after an earthquake, and it’s brought back a lot of talk about The Big One that’s eventually going to happen on the west coast here. From what I’ve seen of our emergency planning around this, we are all going to die.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah it’s crazy when she talks about how little towns and cities have done to prepare. I also found the whole earthquakes and tsunami thing fascinating. They found a historical tsunami in the pacific north west they could roughly guess when it happened but couldn’t find a related earthquake. Then they found out there was a massive earthquake in Japan and the dots connected.


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