Quake as metaphor


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It was the shot heard around the world.  Around the Pacific Northwest, anyway.

Earlier this week, the New Yorker published a long, terrifying article about the massive earthquake headed our way. 

Not that a 9.0 Cascadia event is news to most of us who live along the Ring of Fire.

But reading about disaster tends to fire up the norepinephrine receptors — especially if you’re reading the article while sitting at your desk on the eighth floor of an unretrofitted Portland office building constructed circa 1913. 

Here’s an excerpt:

“’Our operating assumption is that everything west of I-5 will be toast,’ says FEMA director Kenneth Murphy. In the Pacific Northwest, everything west of Interstate 5 covers some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem, Olympia, and some seven million people.

When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America.”

The worst natural disaster in the history of North America?

The prospect of a Cascadia quake is terrifying. It’s also ironic.

Portland’s much vaunted reputation is rooted in the built environment: the high-density, mixed use buildings, farm-to-table restaurants, pedestrian and bike paths and LEED Platinum office and condos. And it’s all engineered for sustainability.

Here’s the definition of sustainability: to be used without being destroyed, to last. For a long time.

Thousands of people move to Portland every year to enjoy the riches of the city, an urban utopia that has been carefully constructed by planners, architects and community leaders. 

But the joke’s on us. It turns out our built environment is on shaky ground, the shakiest in the country. Houston, Texas, a city much maligned by the planning elite — you’re looking pretty good.

It’s easy to read the looming threat of a Cascadia quake as an allegory for a metropolis that earns plaudits for lifestyle and amenities but whose infrastructure is, literally, crumbling. It’s Portland as Ozymandias, the Percy Shelley poem about the impermanence, and hubris, of empire.

But enough gloom and doom. Portlandia, I’d like to see you tackle the Big One. Make us laugh.

At least until the earthquake retrofit money comes in