JERRY THOMPSON’s first grand ambition was to become a bush pilot and to live the idyllic life of a hermit in Canada’s north woods. By some bizarre twist of fate he became a journalist, documentary filmmaker and author instead.

Born in Arkansas and raised in South Carolina, he is a graduate of the University of Delaware. He has worked as a radio and television reporter in Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver and as a network news correspondent on assignments around the world.

He has covered everything from forestry and fishing to earthquakes and tsunamis.  From geo-engineering the climate, to the ozone hole in Australia, to the struggling Sandinista government in Nicaragua, to ethnic civil war in Sri Lanka, and the chemical disaster in Bhopal.  On November 9th, 1989, he climbed the Berlin Wall to witness the collapse of Communism.  He won two Gemini awards (Canada’s equivalent of the Emmy) for his stories about Bhopal and Berlin.

In January 1994, he began writing and directing hour-long documentaries in partnership with his wife, producer Bette Thompson, through their production company, Raincoast Storylines Ltd. In between documentary projects, Jerry has written two screenplays, a television series pilot, and is currently at work on a novel.

The Thompsons live in the village of Sechelt on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast.

Q&A with Jerry Thompson:

How did you first hear about Cascadia's Fault?

Back in the fall of 1985, I was a reporter working on a documentary for CBC Television in New York, when a cameraman buddy of mine was dispatched to to document the deadly earthquake in Mexico City. He was right in the disaster zone when one of the big aftershocks hit, and he told me all about it over the phone-how these high-rise apartment towers were just swaying back and forth like tall trees in a big wind-what a bizarre and scary situation it was. About a week later I got assigned to find out what the scientists had learned as a result of the Mexico City quake because that broken slab of the ocean floor off Mexico’s west coast—the one that caused the disaster—had never ruptured in a megathrust quake before. At least not in “all of recorded history.” So some scientists believed that as the continent was drifting west and the sea floor was diving down underneath, these two tectonic plates were sliding past each other without getting stuck and without building up the kind of strain it takes to cause a quake.

Well, turns out that theory was wrong. But to me the bigger news was the fact that there was another one of these cracks in the ocean floor off the west coast of Canada and the Pacific Northwest—they called it the Cascadia Subduction Zone—and it too was thought to be “aseismic,” or not likely to cause a major quake. So right there on my very first earthquake assignment in 1985, this team of government scientists figured that “if we were wrong about Mexico City, then we’re probably wrong about Cascadia’s fault as well.”

Why haven't we heard about this fault before now?

I’m guessing that quite a few people in the Pacific Northwest have at least some awareness of Cascadia’s fault, but I don’t think the reality of it started to sink in until people saw those home videos from Sumatra in 2004 and the stunning pictures from Japan just recently. And the other thing is that most people in North America if know anything about quakes, they probably know about the San Andreas, the most famous fault in the world. Quakes in San Francisco and Los Angeles have happened recently enough that everybody can still remember what they were like. But the last time Cascadia shook the earth was more than three centuries ago, so far back that there was no “recorded history” of it, no written records, no official way to prove that it ever even happened.

How did scientists establish proof that Cascadia's Fault will rip apart in the not so distant future, or perhaps tomorrow?

Well, that’s actually a really great detective story. It all started with stories told by tribal elders in virtually every native village along the coast from California to Vancouver Island. They all described a winter’s night long, long ago when the ground shook and a killer wave swept across the beaches, wiping out entire communities. So it seemed pretty convincing that some kind of horrible quake and tsunami had happened, but scientists wanted to pin down exactly when.

First they found what they called “ghost forests" –cedar and fir trees that had been killed by salt water when land along the shore suddenly dropped down several feet during a huge earthquake. With radio carbon dating they knew this quake must have happened about three centuries ago—sometime between 1680 and 1720—but they wanted to be more precise than that.

They also found evidence of tsunami sand deposits all along the coast from Vancouver Island down to California. So they knew this must have been a fairly huge event because it covered literally hundreds of miles of coastline.

Then a seismologist in Japan got this hunch that if Cascadia had a huge quake and tsunami, that wave probably hit Japan as well, because it’s pretty much a straight shot across the Pacific. And the Japanese were definitely keeping written records three centuries ago. So they went looking through the archives and sure enough—they found story after story of a wave that caused severe damage and killed people along the Japanese coast in 1700—in many of the same villages that just got hammered again last month.

The interesting part here was the fact that they referred to this ancient wave an “orphan tsunami” because Japanese residents never felt the “parent” earthquake that caused it. So the scientists figured—ah ha!—the quake that triggered the wave must have happened on the far side of the ocean.
By process of elimination they eventually decided the wave must have come from Cascadia’s fault. And so, these ancient documents in Japan became the final link in a chain of evidence that proved the when, the where and the how big of Cascadia’s last major disaster. It was January 26, 1700 at roughly nine o’clock at night, Pacific time.

What was your own reaction when you learned about the imminent danger from Cascadia's Fault and that you are sitting right on the fault line?

Being a journalist, my first response was: wow, what an amazing story! I had never covered anything like this before, so it was all quite new and exciting to me. I guess I’d have to say it was a bit like the moth and the flame. I was drawn to the story because of the mystery, and the fascinating way scientists were trying to solve it—all this muddy boot research—but eventually it began to sink in that I live in the danger zone myself, so what am I gonna do? I mean, what should I do, move back to the prairies to get away from the risk? But wait a minute—has the threat of another big quake on the San Andreas emptied the state of California? Not that I can see. Then I thought—no, I really like it out here on the coast. This is my little corner of paradise. And besides, I think no matter where you live, there’s some kind of threat or risk you’re going to have to face eventually, whether it’s a forest fire or a hurricane, or a terrorist attack—or rising sea level caused by global warming.

I mean sure—I’ve got an earthquake kit at home now, and another one in my car. I’m more aware than ever of the geography around me and whether or not I’m in a safe or not so safe spot if there were an incoming tsunami. I know I need to update the first aid course I took back in the navy a million years go, and that’s definitely on my to-do list. But now that my wife and I have thought about what we would do, we’re not going to sit around and obsess about it. We’re not going to let Cascadia’s fault run us out of paradise. So there!

What will actually happen when the fault rips apart?

Well, this is going to be unlike any quake you’ve ever seen in California. The main difference being that instead of San Francisco or Los Angeles getting hit, you’re going to see five cities hit at the same time. If the entire fault rips apart all at once, all 800 miles of it, the damaging shockwaves will reach from Sacramento to Portland to Seattle to Victoria and Vancouver in Canada. Fifteen or twenty minutes after the quake, the first in a series of big waves will start hitting the West Coast from Vancouver Island all the way to Cape Mendocino, California.
Hours after that, the tsunami will hit Hawaii, Alaska, Japan, Indonesia, Australia - the entire Pacific Rim. It’ll be just like the Sumatra quake and the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

Is there any way to predict Cascadia's Big Quake?

Not really. Not yet, anyway. A team of researchers at Oregon State University took core samples from the ocean floor and found evidence of offshore landslides that happened all up and down the coast, presumably triggered by these huge Cascadia quakes. Last count, there were 41 of these things over the past 10,000 years. Almost half of those, 19 of the quakes, broke the entire fault from end-to-end, at magnitude 9 or higher.

With radiocarbon dating they found that some of these big jolts were 800 years apart, but there were also clusters of four or five quakes that were only 200 years apart. And we now know the last one was 311 years ago.

So are we overdue? Or will we be lucky? Maybe we’re in one of those long quite periods and there’s nothing to worry about for hundreds of years. But the scientists can’t really say for sure.
But according to calculations, the odds of a “full-margin rupture” along the entire fault, which would be magnitude 9 or higher, are roughly 10 percent in the next fifty years. That’s as close as anybody has come to making a prediction.

What can we do as individuals and families to enhance our chances of survival?

Actually, more than you might imagine. I met this fellow, Patrick Corcoran, who works for Oregon State University and does these outreach sessions to try and get people who live along the coast or within striking distance of Cascadia’s fault to think about what they could do as individuals or as families. And it sort of comes down to making a plan—or several plans, actually.

He asks people to imagine what you and your family would do if the quake happened while you were all at work or at school or whatever. Sit around the dinner table and come up with a rendezvous point where all members of the group would meet up. At the local school, or some community center or wherever you think is a logical place that is above the high-water mark and where emergency teams will likely set up camp for medical treatment, shelters for evacuees, that sort of thing. And everybody in the family knows that’s where they’re all going to meet. Each person plots out how they would get there. Then you do it all again, Plan B: how would you get to the rendezvous point if you happened to be at home, when it happened? Or Plan C: what if you were out playing sports or just having fun?

You know the phone system is probably going to crash, so if everyone in your group already knows what to do, you’ll have at least some peace of mind even if you can’t communicate for awhile. When the earthquake finally happens, instead of being completely shocked and having no idea what to do, you’ll be able to say to yourself, “Okay, so this it… I’m at work, the shaking has stopped, so now I launch Plan A.” Just knowing you have a plan will get you going.

And of course it wouldn’t hurt to take that first aid course or join up with some local emergency preparedness group. If you’ve done all that, then, as Patrick Corcoran tells everybody, “stop obsessing about the quake and get on with your life.” You’ve done the best you can do.

What can our government and/or states that will be directly affected by Cascadia's Big Quake do to prepare?

There’s tons of things public officials and businesses need to be doing as well. Getting on with the job of retro-fitting and reinforcing buildings like schools, hospitals, police stations and community centers to make them quake resistant. Storing emergency food, water and medical supplies in shipping containers placed strategically around the community. Reinforcing bridges, dams and tall buildings as best they can.

I think the main point to emphasize, though, is that people at the family and neighborhood level are going to have to do an enormous amount of the work on their own, because the police and fire and paramedic crews are all going to be completely overwhelmed within the first hours after the quake. So it’s totally unrealistic to think that somebody from the government is going to come charging over the hill on a big white horse to save you.

You’re going to be on your own for days, if not weeks. So you and your family and friends are going to have to become self-sufficient and resilient on your own. Nobody’s going to do this for you.

But the reality is, we’re not all going to die. The vast majority of us are going to survive this thing. The important question is how well we endure the aftermath. And that depends entirely on how much we do now to get ourselves ready for it. Survival skills can be learned. Education will help. And whatever you learn about how to survive an earthquake will help you just as much in any other kind of crisis you may face.