When the big one inevitably hits, it will collapse bridges, destroy energy sources, ruin many commercial buildings and leave Portland’s economy in ruins.
In 2007, the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) conducted a seismic risk assessment showing 1,018 of Oregon’s 2,185 school buildings were at a “high or very high risk” of collapse during a major earthquake.
The study was part of a 10-year battle to fund seismic retrofits for schools — a fight that ended, temporarily, last year when the Legislature approved $15 million in bond funds to upgrade K-12 facilities.
The grant program was a big step in the right direction, says Yumei Wang, geohazards team leader for DOGAMI and a national expert on seismic mitigation.
Nevertheless, considering the more than $1 billion needed to retrofit all the at-risk schools, the program is in urgent need of additional funding, says Wang, who hopes the Legislature will approve $200 million in bonds for the next biennium. Other states — and countries — are far ahead of Oregon on seismic school safety, adds Wang, who has seen parents around the world grieving children who died after school buildings collapsed in an earthquake.
“I can tell you, after an earthquake, Oregon politicians are going to slam their fists and say we need to do this now.”
The struggle to fund seismic school safety in Oregon is part of a larger, critical problem about the lack of money and political will to retrofit the state’s aging building stock and transportation and energy infrastructure. At stake is not just the tragic loss of lives, but also the fate of the Oregon economy, which would come to a standstill in the aftermath of a major quake — and take years to fully recover.
Portland’s economy is transportation-dependent, and the region relies on external fuel sources to power that economy.
But even as recent earthquakes in Chile and New Zealand spotlight the importance of seismic mitigation, a spate of reports and assessments indicate that Oregon’s highways and bridges as well as fuel storage and transportation facilities will be unable to withstand a major quake. What’s more, unlike the school retrofit program, there is no plan in place to upgrade these networks.
Add to that the hundreds of commercial buildings in Portland deemed at high risk of collapse — and Oregon’s seismic preparedness status “is pretty bleak,” says Debby Boone, a state representative (D-Cannon Beach) and member of the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission (OSSPAC). Upgrading Oregon’s infrastructure would cost tens of billions of dollars, says Boone.
But the sheer enormity of the task is not a reason to do nothing, seismic risk experts say. As the risk of a massive quake increases daily the question is whether Oregon’s businesses and governments will take another 10 years to even begin tackling the problem.
The need is unquestionable. Oregon’s coastal areas and the Willamette Valley are vulnerable to massive 9.0 magnitude quakes produced by the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a 600-mile-long fault running from northern California to Vancouver B.C. Subduction zones are known for producing the most powerful seismic events on the planet, as well as multiple aftershocks and tsunamis.
There hasn’t been a Cascadia earthquake for 300 years, but the most recent forecast from the U.S. Geological Survey puts the likelihood of a massive quake at 40% in the next 50 years.
“It’s not if,” says Wang, “but when.”
We know the earthquake is coming, and we know the damage will be bad.
A seismic vulnerability report published last fall by the Oregon Department of Transportation provides a typically gloomy assessment, stating: “The effects of this (9.0 Cascadia) earthquake would be widespread across the most dynamic portion of the transportation network.” The report describes, among the carnage, an impassable Highway 101, closure of all state routes between 101 and I-5, 400 collapsed bridges, 600 damaged bridges and widespread damage to I-5.
“You know how a report usually says: ‘A portion of the highway will remain closed?’” asks Kent Yu, a structural engineer with Degenkolb Engineers and an OSSPAC member. “Well, this one says: ‘A portion of I-5 will remain open.’ That’s how grave the situation is.”
The energy situation is equally dire.
Oregon imports 90% of its fuel from Washington, most of which is stored in tank farms along the Willamette River. But the majority of those storage facilities do not meet seismic standards and sit on soil that will liquefy during a major quake, says Deanna Henry, emergency preparedness manager for the Oregon Department of Energy.
“These are old, old, old tanks on bad, bad, bad soil,” she says. The pipelines were not built to seismic standards either, she says.
Fuel is the linchpin of the recovery system — without it, efforts to restore the electrical grid in the aftermath of a seismic event will be severely compromised. “Maintenance trucks cannot do grid backup without fuel, and if I can’t get fuel out to maintenance trucks — it’s a vicious cycle,” Henry says.
Henry adds that a Cascadia quake would “most likely devastate” terminals at the Port of Portland, which also sit on liquefiable soils.
The condition of Portland’s older commercial buildings adds to the litany of woes. Of greatest concern are the 1,700 unreinforced masonry structures deemed at high risk of collapse in a major quake.
Under Oregon code, property owners are required to complete seismic retrofits only when there is a change in use or major renovation. “But because of the costs involved, many property owners try to avoid triggering those thresholds,” says Mark Chubb, operations manager for the city of Portland Office of Emergency Management.
Even new buildings are vulnerable. Oregon’s earthquake construction standards, which were implemented in 1994, do not take into account the extended duration associated with subduction zone quakes, about 4 to 5 minutes of continuous shaking, says Stacy Bartoletti, president of Degenkolb.
“We are not designing our buildings any differently than in California, where the earthquakes have a shorter duration,” he says. The ground motions produced by subduction zone quakes are particularly hazardous for mid- to high-rise towers, Bartoletti adds.
To 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.”
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.”