STORY BY LINDA BAKER // ILLUSTRATION BY NICK GILLETT
In 2007, the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) conducted a seismic risk assessment showing 1,018 of Oregon’s 2,185 school buildings were at a “high or very high risk” of collapse during a major earthquake. The study was part of a 10-year battle to fund seismic retrofits for schools — a fight that ended, temporarily, last year when the Legislature approved $15 million in bond funds to upgrade K-12 facilities.
The grant program was a big step in the right direction, says Yumei Wang, geohazards team leader for DOGAMI and a national expert on seismic mitigation. Nevertheless, considering the more than $1 billion needed to retrofit all the at-risk schools, the program is in urgent need of additional funding, says Wang, who hopes the Legislature will approve $200 million in bonds for the next biennium. Other states — and countries — are far ahead of Oregon on seismic school safety, adds Wang, who has seen parents around the world grieving children who died after school buildings collapsed in an earthquake.
“I can tell you, after an earthquake, Oregon politicians are going to slam their fists and say we need to do this now.”
The struggle to fund seismic school safety in Oregon is part of a larger, critical problem about the lack of money and political will to retrofit the state’s aging building stock and transportation and energy infrastructure. At stake is not just the tragic loss of lives, but also the fate of the Oregon economy, which would come to a standstill in the aftermath of a major quake — and take years to fully recover.
Portland’s economy is transportation-dependent, and the region relies on external fuel sources to power that economy. But even as recent earthquakes in Chile and New Zealand spotlight the importance of seismic mitigation, a spate of reports and assessments indicate that Oregon’s highways and bridges as well as fuel storage and transportation facilities will be unable to withstand a major quake. What’s more, unlike the school retrofit program, there is no plan in place to upgrade these networks.
Add to that the hundreds of commercial buildings in Portland deemed at high risk of collapse — and Oregon’s seismic preparedness status “is pretty bleak,” says Debby Boone, a state representative (D-Cannon Beach) and member of the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission (OSSPAC). Upgrading Oregon’s infrastructure would cost tens of billions of dollars, says Boone.
But the sheer enormity of the task is not a reason to do nothing, seismic risk experts say. As the risk of a massive quake increases daily the question is whether Oregon’s businesses and governments will take another 10 years to even begin tackling the problem.
The need is unquestionable. Oregon’s coastal areas and the Willamette Valley are vulnerable to massive 9.0 magnitude quakes produced by the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a 600-mile-long fault running from northern California to Vancouver B.C. Subduction zones are known for producing the most powerful seismic events on the planet, as well as multiple aftershocks and tsunamis.
There hasn’t been a Cascadia earthquake for 300 years, but the most recent forecast from the U.S. Geological Survey puts the likelihood of a massive quake at 40% in the next 50 years.
“It’s not if,” says Wang, “but when.”