Unlike climate change, there are no Cascadia subduction zone skeptics. A massive earthquake is coming our way and yet apathy is the biggest hurdle facing Oregon’s seismic mitigation advocates. “It’s tough to rally people around an event that has never occurred in our lifetime,” says Gerry Williams, chair of OSSPAC and principal of Construction Research Inc.
Emergency management officials are working feverishly to raise awareness and plan for the event, staging “Cascadia peril” training exercises and organizing neighborhood communication networks, especially in tsunami zones. Recent media coverage of the numerous earthquakes that have occurred around the globe has also helped spotlight the value of seismic mitigation, says Williams. Chile’s world-class seismic codes explain why only 500 people died during the country’s massive quake last February, most in the accompanying tsunami. By contrast, 72,000 people were killed in the 7.1 magnitude quake last January in Haiti, where building codes are weak or nonexistent.
Spotlighting the “tremendous problems getting the commercial sector up and running” will also help build support for rehabilitation programs, Williams says. Oregon’s political and business leaders have spent six years and $100 million wrangling over the costs of congestion on the I-5 corridor along with the need to build a new multi-billion-dollar bridge over the Columbia River to alleviate that congestion. But those costs pale in comparison to the traffic disruptions that will occur around the region post-quake. In 1999, a preliminary report on the economic impact of a Cascadia event posited $30 billion in losses, a figure Wang says only includes direct damage, not “cascading business losses.” (She also says those 10-year-old figures are considered a “huge underestimation.”)
In an interview published last winter in Eos, the magazine of the American Geophysical Union, Paul Mann, a senior research scientist with the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas, described the urgency with which earthquake-prone regions should address seismic mitigation: “Countries with faults threatening dense populations need to approach earthquake defense with the same energy, consistency and level of scientific spending as devoted to their military defense.”
Perhaps the military metaphor won’t go over so well in Portland. But in a region preoccupied with sustainable business practices, the notion of creating a resilient built environment should resonate. Models from other states and countries demonstrate there are systematic, cost- effective ways to approach seismic security. Now it’s time for Oregon to confront the risks that come with living in earthquake country. “Retrofits need to be addressed and prioritized,” says Boone, “so we can get something done.”