The Big Quake is Coming: Is Portland Prepared?

By Ronald A. Buel of Portland, Oregon. Ronald is a longtime progressive activist in Portland.

Prominent geologists say we’re due for a powerful earthquake. Chances are 14-20% that it could hit in the next 50 years, experts say. The expected magnitude 9 quake hitting the Cascadia Subduction Zone would first hit at sea, creating a mighty tsunami with waves 50 to 100 feet high. Such a quake would roll inward through Portland to the Cascade Mountains, hitting an area from Eureka, California to Vancouver B.C. This quake would create violent shaking for three to four minutes, collapsing buildings and creating massive havoc. The Portland City Club created a study committee, which, late last month made 14 recommendations in its 84-page report (pdf).

The City Club report, however, just doesn’t go far enough in three crucial areas -- how to prevent loss of life during and immediately after the big quake; why we need an early warning system; and how to pay now for life-saving solutions. The local press did not publicize the report widely, and it is likely that the report's recommendations, like those of so many City Club studies, will go unheeded.

Suppose the “Big One” hit us this year. We are totally unprepared in Portland.

According to a less-than-comprehensive Portland Bureau of Development Services survey of the city, more than 1,700 buildings, built between 1870 and 1960, are built with unreinforced masonry. These buildings will collapse partially or completely, killing people in and near them. Based on my count from the city's study, these unreinforced masonry structures include 25 Portland public schools, a dozen private schools, 28 churches, 21 event halls, seven community centers, and 17 hotels. The list also includes 227 apartment buildings two to seven stories high. The other 1,000-plus buildings that likely would collapse contain offices, medical clinics, grocery stores, and businesses of every type. A recent magnitude 9 quake in Japan, like the one expected here, killed 15,000 people and destroyed 272,000 buildings.

No one has counted the private homes in Portland where the foundation is not fastened to the walls. Many people in most such homes will find their house collapsing right off the foundation. At the very least, the State Legislature should make home sellers certify, at all future sales, whether their homes are likely to withstand a quake because they are fastened securely to the foundations.

The most significant finding in the City Club report involves the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub on the west bank of the Willamette, just north of the central city -- the dozens of oil and liquid natural gas tanks have a capacity of 830 million gallons, roughly 28 times the quantity of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster. The fossil fuels would flow into the Willamette, eventually to the Columbia River.

Here’s why: 1) these tanks are not reinforced, 2) the quake would turn the ground underneath the tanks to liquid, and 3) the protective walls that surround the tanks are not tall enough to contain the oil and gas - and may collapse during the quake. In addition, electric transmission lines above the area could fall, sparking a massive, uncontrollable fire on land and on the river.

It does not seem likely that the owners of these tanks will move rapidly to harden the land underneath the tanks and reinforce them. These tanks require a speedy public-private solution, in part because they contain 90% of the fossil fuel storage for Portland Metro, and the pipeline that feeds them from Seattle will rupture in dozens of locations during a quake.

There is also the matter of the bridges across the Willamette, 11 of which will come down in a quake if it happened now. Even the ramps on the new Tillikum Bridge and the new Sellwood Bridge are not likely to remain standing and allow use of those two bridges. People will be stranded on one side of the river or the other in this disaster, unable to get home to their loved ones. We need to harden at least one full bridge for a quake -- the City Club study recommends the Burnside Bridge.

The City Club report provides very little information about Portland’s emergency response network after a big quake. The city’s 911 emergency communication system will fail entirely, and at least half a dozen police, fire and ambulance facilities will collapse. The report does not address which hospitals and schools will remain standing. The city’s current plan recommends schools as emergency shelters, but 25 of the 87 schools will certainly collapse. Hospitals seem particularly critical in the aftermath of a quake, but which will stand and which will fall?

Most importantly, the report barely mentions an advance warning system like those used in Japan and Manzanita, Oregon. Such a system would sound an alert when the first earthquake shock hits. This warning would give people in Portland a minute or so, as the earthquake rolls in, to get out of, and away from, dangerous buildings. This early warning system seems like the highest priority action item to me. Leaving it to the U.S. Geological Survey to create such a needed system does not seem responsible public policy. Schools, hospitals and residents of multi-story old apartments deserve all of the warning time they can get.

Finally, the City Club report fails to discuss how to finance the critical infrastructure fixes. Government bonding can provide the money to get one or more bridges ready to withstand a quake. It can buy an advance warning system. It can prevent the energy hub disaster. It can reinforce schools, hospitals and first-responder buildings, and provide reinforcing assistance for at-risk hotels, apartments, and important cultural landmarks. Money now can "harden" key electricity, water and sewer systems, and our 911 emergency communication system. It can save many lives and make the future worth living. The City Council needs to act to create a large bond for such fixes, and it needs to do it now

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