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Portland is unprepared for a big earthquake

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Articles - November 2010
Thursday, October 21, 2010

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.”



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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