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The Big One 'will be probably the greatest natural disaster to hit the United States'

A member of the Washington Army National Guard 792nd Chemical Company from Grandview, Wash., demonstrates how a military vehicle would be decontaminated if it came in contact with polluted or hazardous substances stirred up by a tsunami, Wednesday, June 8, 2016, in Port Angeles, Wash. The exercise was part of a massive earthquake and tsunami drill called Cascadia Rising, that is built around the premise of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake 95 miles off of the coast of Oregon that results in a tsunami. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Experts at Oregon State University say the devastation seen in Mexico City is similar to what we could see here if a major earthquake hit.

And there's always that potential with the Cascadia Subduction Zone just west of us in the Pacific Ocean.

"We are not very well prepared," Scott Ashford, the Dean of OSU's College of Engineering said. "It will be probably the greatest natural disaster to hit the United States when we get the Big One on the Cascadia."

Mexico City experienced a slab earthquake.

OSU Earthquake Geologist Chris Goldfinger says that's the earth stretching like Laffy Taffy.

That kind of quake could happen here too.

But Goldfinger says what's more concerning is the potential for a Cascadia Subduction Zone quake.

That's when one plate dives underneath the other.

It'd be an 8 to 9 magnitude earthquake, larger than the 7.1 magnitude quake we saw in Mexico.

Our buildings could crumble just as those in Mexico City did.

According to Goldfinger, roughly 70 percent of the northwest's infrastructure is a collapse hazard.

"Most of Mexico City and most of our cities here are not up to code in terms of resiliency," he said.

That's because our buildings and bridges are old.

"All of Highway 101 would be shut down due to bridge failure, all the routes to the coast would be shut down from bridge failure," Ashford said.

They were built in the 1950s before anyone even knew about the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

But now we know: the last quake of that size was 317 years ago, and there's significant probability of another one in the next 50 years.

"When you get down to Portland the probability is around 20 percent, when you get to say Coos Bay, Bandon, Medford that far south the probability jumps to around 40 percent," Goldfinger said.

Though there's only so much geologists and engineers can predict.

So the state of Oregon has a resiliency plan and is working on seismic improvements so our infrastructure can hold up.

"If we don't start preparing today we are never going to be ready," Ashford said.

As for the rest of us? "You can feel it building up and you can feel it happening and so you have time to react," Goldfinger says. We'll get about a one minute warning to take cover if and when the big one hits.

The experts say usually wood frame houses hold up okay, so you should be more concerned about your work place.

CHECK | Check the earthquake collapse risk of your home or workplace

They say check the building code.

If it's a collapsible building, you want to get out of there.

If not, you can take cover inside.

They say always have a go bag in your car just in case.

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