I love disaster movies. For those unfamiliar with the genre, go out immediately and rent “Independence Day”, “Dante's Peak”, “Armageddon”, “Twister”, and “The Day After Tomorrow”. You'll thank me afterward.
There is nothing more awesome than watching a small group of people try to survive a cataclysmic disaster amidst everything blowing sky high. What disaster movies may lack in terms of plot and realism, they more than make up for in awesome special effects and absurdity. Remove yourself from the weight of the unrealistic carnage and these movies can be rather fun. But how accurate are some of these Hollywood conventions?
Much like another of my favorite genres, zombie movies, disaster flicks resonate deep within your psyche, forcing you to consider the possibilities of a disaster long after the film stops running. I've walked many times through Red Square wondering what I would do if a disaster of epic proportions struck Western.
Would I be the hero? Would I be the poor guy to get crushed by a giant piece of metal in the first half hour? Where would I go? Would anyone save me?
Fighting our fears, the AS Review decided to investigate.
A common cause of concern in the Northwest, an earthquake could bring untold amounts of damage to the many brick structures that make up most of our school. It's easy to imagine large cracks in the earth with gaping fissures or concrete falling as the buildings in Red Square begin to crumble. Panicked students would run amok.
A real earthquake, however, would pose far different hazards than those seen in popular movies, according to Geology professor David Hirsch.
“One real danger with earthquakes is buildings falling apart and causing falling debris,” Hirsch said. “A more realistic risk [than giant chasms] is things falling off of shelves or from the roof and hitting you on the head.”
Hirsch also said that broken natural gas pipelines and power outages are more threatening possibilities than large crevices suddenly appearing in the ground.
“That's pretty unrealistic,” Hirsch said with a smile. “You get small cracks but not gaping fissures.”
While each of us sleeps in peace, a vicious monster lurks in our midst. One day it will erupt while our university (if it's still here) waits in its shadow. That beast is Mt. Baker. If it were to erupt, I wonder how much of “Dante's Peak” would actually occur. Could I outrun a speeding cloud of ash chasing my humble 4x4?
According to the United States Geological Survey, it could be possible. The average speed of a pyroclastic flow â€“ a combination of hot gas and sediment which travels away from a volcano during eruption â€“ can travel downslope between 31- 93 MPH.
Theoretically, it might be possible to drive faster than a pyroclastic flow in a vehicle, but a person would definitely not be able to outrun it, Hirsch said. He also emphasized the word “might.”
Western students would likely be able to see the eruption from campus but needn't worry about lava or pyroclastic flow reaching them. The ashfall, a term geologists use to describe the weather condition when ash is blown in by wind and then falls like snow, would create problems because it can pile up. Because ash weighs more than snow and does not melt, it can pose problems for a building's stability, especially on the roof. The ash, which Hirsch estimated could reach 8 to 10 centimeters over the course of a few days, would also make breathing conditions very difficult.
“The worst news we could expect to see on campus [from Mt. Baker erupting] is to wake up to big piles of ash everywhere,” he said.
Part of Western's appeal lies in the green beauty and comfort we receive from the trees in the arboretum that surround our campus. But what would happen if one of our greatest visual assets also turned into our most scalding enemy?
According to Don Davis, Emergency Management Specialist for the Bellingham Fire Department, it is unlikely that a fire on Sehome Hill would reach our pristine slice of college.
“Our first effort would be to contain the fire and prevent it from spreading to the local neighborhoods,” Davis said. He also said the Bellingham Fire Department would “respond as best we could,” but that additional resources from other fire departments in the state may be required.
Davis advised students to tune in to the news to get information about wind direction, size of the fire and current weather conditions should the situation occur. If the fire grows so large that you can see the flames, then it's time to evacuate.
Still, he assured students that the campus remains very prepared for a fire.
“I think we could keep it contained to Sehome Hill because we have a good water supply on that side of campus,” Davis said. “We have a lot of apparatus already in place to prevent a fire from reaching the school.”
As far as I know, neither Ben Affleck nor Bruce Willis are residents of Whatcom County. Since they no longer remain an option, is there any escaping a giant rock racing toward us? Is it even likely?
“No. Basically it's zero [percent]. Very small,” said SMATE Director and former NASA astronaut professor George Nelson. “In the next 50 million years, maybe, but probably not in [students'] lifetimes.”
Because of the vast amount of resources dedicated to observing outer space, Nelson believes that we would have more than enough information about what time and where the meteor might hit and ample time to evacuate.
He also noted that popular theories about blowing up asteroids are not only unrealistic, but ineffective. The best means of deflecting an asteroid is to use gravity to alter its course, Nelson said.
Size is also of importance. If a meteor were massive enough to have global implications upon contact, Western students couldn't protect themselves from it any better than the rest of the world. However, even that hazard is slowly growing smaller as asteroid-deflecting technology continues to improve, Nelson said.
PREPARE WITH PRACTICALITY
If Western were unfortunate enough to experience one of the situations listed above, Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) Director Gayle Shipley believes that being prepared can help lower the risks that may affect students post-disaster. She also stressed the importance of making sure that all of your supplies are up to date. Simple measures, like storing water and a spare pair of shoes to protect against broken glass, will often go a long way if supplies begin to grow scarce.
“The biggest message for students is that we all need to be ready. We always need to be preparing,” Shipley said. “We don't want to do one thing and think we're done. It's important that each of us looks at these possibilities and prepares themselves.”
In conjunction with Western's new Public Information and Emergency Response (PIER), an on-demand communication web device, sends students text messages and e-mails about dangers on campus as they happen, Shipley said. With this technology that students can register for on their Web4U account, Western is able to reach students quickly to deliver up-to-date information. PIER could also be used to notify students of a possible evacuation.
The AS bookstore sells kits containing water, first aid supplies and other products for disaster situations.
For more information on how to handle a campus- wide emergency, go to http://emergency.wwu.edu/go/site/1539/. Or try Washington State's Emergency Management Division at www.emd.wa.gov. There you can find nine simple steps for what to do post disaster as well as tips to stay prepared and resources for mapping your neighborhood for future reference.