This week’s feature tells the grim tale of what might happen to Portland if the Pacific Northwest were suddenly hit with a magnitude 9.0 earthquake. If you haven’t read it yet (spoiler alert!) it’s pretty much what you’d expect from a city with an aging infrastructure: destruction, death, and all around chaos.

But as we hinted toward the end of the story (and as some commentators have noticed), our story might be overly optimistic. The reason: every agency that assesses seismic resilience has made certain assumptions about when services will be up and running again. Basically, when making their models, everyone thinks the other person will be able do their job.

For example, Leon Kempner from Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) in modeling how quickly the electric grid could be up and running assumed that Portland General Electric was also doing repairs simultaneously. And, as we mentioned in our story, Kempner’s model also assumed roads would be useable immediately following a quake, which contradicted Oregon Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) Bruce Johnson, who told us many roads wouldn’t be cleared for weeks. And while there is nothing nefarious in these assumptions (all models make assumptions; remember geometry?), it does make it difficult to see the big picture. But one group, the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Committee (OSSPAC), hopes to change that.

“Everyone assumes the other sector is going to work,” says OSSPAC Chair, Kent Yu. “We are going to get rid of the all the assumptions.”

Since its founding in 1989 by the Oregon Legislature, OSSPAC has worked to assess the state’s seismic needs, including how well vital “lifeline” services—from electricity to transportation—will fare. But this year, under Yu’s leadership, the group will go one step further and actually create a comprehensive model of exactly how Oregon’s lifeline systems will interact with one another. Yu hopes this will help planners get a better idea of just how long we could be without services.

The ambitious effort, involving over 100 individuals from geologists to emergency planners, will build off work already done by OSSPAC members including Leon Kempner from the BPA, Bruce Johnson from ODOT, Yumei Wang from the Oregon Department of Mineral Industries, and J.R. Gonzalez from the Oregon Public Utility Commission (all of whom provided startling information for our grim tale).

OSSPAC members will identity the state’s vulnerabilities. But they'll also do something better. Following the mandates of a House resolution passed last year, the group will also give the Legislature a series of recommendations that—incredible as it might sound—could help get the state back on it's feet within a matter of weeks and months, instead the months and years it otherwise would take.

Of course this will take time and a lot of effort. To get Oregon up to seismic snuff will take 50 years, Yu says. This, he says is a realistic goal given how often infrastructure needs to be replaced.

"It will be challenging,” says Yu, “but it has to be done."

However, given political bickering and shenanigans over current projects like the Columbia River Crossing, as well as voters’ unwillingness to approve bonds to seismically upgrade schools, getting Oregonians to sign off on costly projects might be difficult. But let’s hope we do. A magnitude 8.0 or greater earthquake is very likely in the next 50 years. Let’s also hope, as the song says, that time is on our side.

And for the geeks in the audience…

The graph below compares Oregon’s resilience in a large earthquake to how Chile responded to its own mega-thrust quake in 2010. As you can see, we aren’t very resilient. The idea here is to get in the green “Resilience Triangle,” where we can not only recover quickly from a disaster, but like Chile, will actually be able to improve our infrastructure afterward.

Resilience Triangle
  • Yumei Wang
  • Resilience Triangle