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WASHINGTON – The western United States is overdue for a huge earthquake and tsunami much like the one that devastated Japan last week, and is nowhere near ready to cope with the disaster, experts say.
A volatile, horseshoe-shaped area known as the Pacific Ring of Fire has recently erupted with quakes in Chile, Japan, Mexico and New Zealand, and seismologists say it is just a matter of time before the next big one hits.
Twin fault lines place the US west at risk: the San Andreas fault that scars the length of California and the lesser-known but more potent Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Pacific Coast.
A 9.0 quake in this underwater fault that stretches from the northern tip of California all the way to Canada's British Columbia could simultaneously rattle major port cities of Vancouver, Portland and Seattle, unleash a massive tsunami and kill thousands of people.
"From the geological standpoint, this earthquake occurs very regularly," said geotechnical engineer Yumei Wang, who is the geohazards team leader at the Oregon Department of Geology.
"With the Cascadia fault, we have records of 41 earthquakes in the last 10,000 years with an average of 240 years apart. Our last one was 311 years ago so we are overdue," she said.
Records from the last quake in Cascadia in 1700 AD show that the tsunami it generated killed people in Japan.
"Geologists can't predict exactly when the next earthquake will be but engineers can predict the damage pattern," said Wang.