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Portland is unprepared for a big earthquake

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Articles - November 2010
Thursday, October 21, 2010

1110_ShakeDown03To understand why Oregon’s building codes are still lagging and why much of the infrastructure is in such bad shape, consider that unlike California, the story of Oregon and earthquake awareness is not very old. As recently as the 1970s, the state was considered relatively immune to seismic activity. That changed in 1989, when geologists discovered evidence of earthquakes triggered by the Cascadia zone, casting a pall on a region considered something of a geographical utopia.

Even the state of Washington has more modern-day experience with earthquakes than Oregon. In 2001 the 6.8 magnitude Nisqually earthquake, one of the largest recorded quakes in Washington history, heavily damaged SeaTac airport and the Alaskan Way viaduct in Seattle. By contrast, the most recent quakes in Oregon, the Scotts Mills earthquake and the Klamath Falls earthquake, occurred in 1993 and caused no injuries and little damage.

Oregon’s late-to-the-game status helps explain why the state lags behind not just California but also our neighbor to the north when it comes to retrofitting the built environment. “People who haven’t been hit always think it’s going to happen to someone else,” says Wang.

Compare, for example, the Oregon and Washington bridge retrofit programs. In Oregon, only 178 of 1,178 at-risk state-owned bridges have received minimum retrofits —  only three have been upgraded to withstand a “maximum anticipated earthquake.” Washington’s retrofit program — which, unlike Oregon’s, receives dedicated funding — is more than 50% completed. The Washington Department of Transportation has also prioritized its retrofits to create an “earthquake resilient” route that would speed recovery following a quake.

Washington and California have taken a proactive approach to risk management, says Bruce Johnson, Oregon’s state bridge engineer. “The citizens, legislatures, and transportation commissions in those states have recognized the benefit of investing in preparation for a large damaging seismic event.”

“The transportation investment ratio is very large,” Johnson adds. “Something like investing a few hundred million now will save tens of billions after such an event.”

The Port of Portland retrofits facilities every time a renovation takes place, as is required by code. But unlike the ports of Oakland and Los Angeles, the Port of Portland has yet to complete a systemwide seismic vulnerability assessment and mitigation plan for marine facilities — a gap Stan Watters, the Port’s director of development services and information technology, says will be addressed this fall.

“Everybody is still kind of getting up to speed on this,” says Watters, referring to evolving scientific research on subduction quakes.

For their part, the companies who ply the harbor are doing little to improve seismic security. An ongoing DOGAMI assessment of marine oil terminals suggests that conglomerates such as Conoco Phillips, Shell and Tesoro are investing all their resources in oil exploration with little time or money spent on terminal maintenance, says Henry. “The people we have worked with at the terminals have appreciated us going to talk to them,” she says. “Now they have to kick it up to headquarters to see if that gets them anywhere.”



Jay Raskin
+1 #1 Regional disasterJay Raskin 2010-10-28 08:57:47
As bad (and accurate) as the impacts described in this article are, the situation is actually worse, since this will be a regional disaster and have similar impacts for Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver and all the way down to northern California. As we grapple with Cascadia, we also need to coordinating our efforts with our neighboring states and the Federal government. This is being done to some degree but needs a more concerted effort. One last point about transportation, the Columbia River channel will also likely fill in, cutting off shipping from the river ports.
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Edward Wolf
+1 #2 Seismic resilience is sustainabilityEdward Wolf 2010-10-28 09:46:15
This article makes an astute point about the need to tie seismic resilience to sustainable business practices. The emerging "green shoots" of a new regional economy based on sustainability, from Solar World USA and Vestas all the way down to local food-and-farm networks, will come to a standstill if our transportation, communication, and transmission infrastructures all fail in the aftermath of a Cascadia quake. Seismic resilience is sustainability, and we need green leaders (and other sectors, too) who will say so, and act on their belief.
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C Rogers
0 #3 Lower your expectations...C Rogers 2010-11-19 11:17:37
Seismic codes helps to mitigate death and injury not to prevent damage to the building.
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