Guessing Game 

Oregon's Quake Planners Take Aim at "Assumptions"

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BY NOW, we ought to know what will happen when Portland is hit by a doomsday 9.0 earthquake that, geologists warn, could strike any day: Thousands will die and Oregon's economy and infrastructure will take years to recover ["The First Four Minutes," Feature, March 15].

But beyond that—like finding an answer to the question "how long will services like transportation and power be down?"—it's mostly a guess. And that's because no single agency has ever tried to find out. Until now.

"Every sector is dependent on every other sector, and it's very messy," says Kent Yu, engineer at Degenkolb and chairman of the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Committee (OSSPAC)—a decades-old state panel that the Oregon Legislature has finally tasked with filling that void.

"Telecommunications won't work without electricity, and firefighters can't put out fires if the city's pipes are broken," Yu says, noting that past earthquake assessments have tended to overlook this interdependency. "Everyone assumes the other sector is going to work, and this is a problem. We are going to get rid of all these assumptions."

Since the Oregon Legislature created it in 1989, OSSPAC has examined the state's seismic vulnerability. But starting this January, under the directive of a House resolution, the group's volunteer scientists, engineers, and emergency planners are going one step further. OSSPAC is taking a deep look at how each of Oregon's vital "lifeline" services affect one another.

The effort will involve more than 150 individuals and is expected to take the better part of a year. Through their work, the group hopes to answer the question that until now has been unknowable: Just how long will Oregon take to recover from a 9.0 quake?

Next February, OSSPAC hopes to present this master estimate to the Legislature—along with a series of recommendations for seismic upgrades and retrofits to the state's power, transportation, and communications systems. Yu says the group hopes to save thousands of lives, and maybe keep Oregon's economy from collapsing in the process.

"If you didn't have electricity, how long would it take you to decide to leave Oregon: A week? A month? A year?" asks Yumei Wang, an OSSPAC member and a geologist at the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries.

That question, at least, has an answer. According to Wang, Yu, and others, most people will give it a go for two months. If it takes longer than that to get things up and running, and get most workers back on the job, Oregon will experience a mass exodus that is expected to wreck the economy. But even assuming OSSPAC gets its way and politicians take their recommendations to heart, don't expect change anytime soon.

To get Oregon and Portland's aging infrastructure up to seismic snuff, OSSPAC suggests a timeframe of 50 years. This number, says Yu, is based partly on how often equipment and buildings are typically replaced, and partly on what's politically realistic. However, 50 years might be too late. According to geologists watching for a killer quake, the Pacific Northwest is already decades overdue.

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