Clean Energy Works CEO Derek Smith, US Representative Earl Blumenauer, and Commissioner Steve Novick at the SE Portland home of Stacey Schubert.
  • Nathan Gilles
  • Clean Energy Works CEO Derek Smith, US Representative Earl Blumenauer, and Commissioner Steve Novick at the SE Portland home of Stacey Schubert.

Commissioner Steve Novick took a definitive step this week toward tackling our coming earthquake disaster.

At a press conference Thursday, Novick and US Representative Earl Blumenauer (signature bow-tie and all) announced a $100,000 pilot project that will let homeowners tap Federal Emergency Management Agency money so they can finance seismic retrofits of their homes.

As we reported in October, Novick and the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM) have been quietly playing with the idea of acquiring federal dollars to help homeowners pay for seismic retrofits. Today’s announcement was an official recognition of the work they’ve been doing.

“I was alarmed to learn in the summer of 2012 that one of our biggest vulnerabilities when we have a big quake is homes built before 1974 are unlikely to be bolted to their foundations and so are unlikely to survive an earthquake,” Novick told the crowd of gathered reporters.

That’s right. As things sit now—in a major earthquake like the killer magnitude 9.0 shaker scientists warn is coming—many Portland homes will shimmy off their foundations. How many?

Well, the city estimates roughly 100,000 Portland homes aren’t bolted to their foundations. But like other “windshield surveys” of Portland’s vulnerable infrastructure, this is just an educated guess. Dan Douthit, PBEM’s public information officer, told me the margin of error on this figure could be fairly large, either plus or minus tens of thousands. Novick says he’d be surprised if there aren’t at least 50,000 unattached homes in the city.

But regardless of the exact number, Thursday's announcement is a very positive step, if for no other reason than the solution to this particular seismic issue is ridiculously simple: Just. Bolt. The. Fucking. Homes. To. Their. Foundations. Already.

The procedure is ridiculously uncomplicated, and not really, in the scheme of things, that expensive.

Novick, who attached his 1965 home to its foundation, says he spent around $4,000 for the work. PBEM Director Carmen Merlo’s house, to put it mildly, required a little more work than that. She says she ended up spending $25,000 on her retrofit. But she’s probably an outlier. A more typical case is Portland homeowner Stacy Schubert—after the jump.

The press conference was held at Schubert’s Southeast Portland home. Schubert is one of the 30 homeowners in the pilot project. About 75 percent of the cost of her retrofit will be covered by FEMA.

Schubert graciously let the congressman, the commissioner, and a handful of staffers and reporters into her cramped unfinished basement to view exactly how you attach a home to its foundation. Basically, it requires some metal sheets and some bolts. It’s not rocket science. (And it’s also not sexy, like the city’s new Emergency Coordination Center. But there you have it.)

Schubert’s retrofit work was done in conjunction with Clean Energy Works Oregon, a nonprofit that helps Oregonians make their homes more energy efficient. Her house has also undergone an energy-efficiency retrofit.

“I think it’s really appropriate that Clean Energy Works was involved,” said Novick. “Because earthquake preparedness is an aspect of sustainability. All of us in Portland talk about sustainability… but if we as a city are not going to survive the earthquake, we’re not very sustainable.”

Novick’s goal—with Blumenauer acting as Daddy Warbucks to his Orphan Annie—is to get still more federal dollars to expand the pilot project into something bigger and better.

“We’re talking about 30 homes," Novick said. "We need to get to thousands.”

FEMA, often thought of as a purely reactionary agency (or not, in the case of Hurricane Katrina), does in fact dole out some money for prevention. Blumenauer, who helped acquire the pilot project’s current funding—and who also made a tie-in to sustainability by including all the millions the federal government now has to pay out to clean up after storms, droughts, fires, and what not resulting from climate change—told the crowd, in effect, an ounce of FEMA prevention is worth a pound of FEMA cure.

“If we can do some investing up front, we can save millions of dollars,” said Blumenauer. “And it’s not just dollars. If we do our jobs right we can prevent injuries, deaths, and disruptions to business. This is an opportunity to show that prevention works.”

(Blumenauer then sheepishly admitted he needed to reassess if his own house had been seismically retrofitted. He thought it had. But apparently it hadn’t.)

Sure, you might say. That’s fine for homeowners. It’s their property, their investment, and they’re highly motivated to keep their homes from turning into something resembling a game of pick up sticks. What about us schmucks that live in older apartment buildings whose owners could care less that their building are likely going to collapse on their tenants and turn us into so much hamburger meat in a major earthquake?

Well, that’s true. But there’s this.

In the fall, the Mercury reported Novick was looking into creating a new, more-far-reaching ordinance requiring seismic retrofits to structures known as unreinforced masonry buildings, or URMs. These are stone and brick buildings—mostly built between the 1840s and 1930s—that are basically just going to crumble to pieces and kill thousands in a large quake. In fact they’re so dangerous, they’re often referred to as “killers,” or "known killers” by seismic engineers. Portland alone has some 1,765 URMs, according to the Historic Preservation League of Oregon. But again, this is just an educated guess.

Novick’s plan is to require URMs get retrofitted partly by putting some regulatory teeth into the city’s existing seismic code, which builders and building owners have long-figured out how to circumvent. But he also wants to provide incentives to get the retrofits done. This includes allocating urban renewal money to retrofits.

“Obviously, it would be nice if building owners would just go ahead and do it themselves,” Novick told me. “And there is going to be a regulatory move, but it would be nice if we had some money to help them out.”

Novick, who oversees PBEM, has also been meeting with energy-providers in the city’s energy hub, AKA the uninviting, industry-choked banks of the Willamette River, from the Fremont Bridge to Sauvie Island. This six-mile stretch is arguably the most important six miles in all of Oregon, holding the majority of the state’s liquid fuel supply. (For any terrorists reading this, pretend you didn't).

Companies in the hub include big-name fuel suppliers like Shell, BP, and ConocoPhillips as well as lesser-known energy heavies like NuStar and Kinder Morgan. According to a thorough Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries study, the region’s soil is susceptible to a phenomenon called liquefaction, and many of the tanks are really really old and not up for the challenge of a major earthquake. In other word’s they’re expected to fall over, sink into the ground, leak fuel into the river, possibly start on fire, and otherwise rain hell down upon Portland.

Novick says he’s talked to Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who is on the Senate Energy Committee, about having the companies in the hub do a seismic assessment to determine just how vulnerable they are (and potentially how screwed we might be) and how much fuel the state will need to stay on its feet in the aftermath of the coming mega-quake.

Novick says so far he’s met with Shell, Kinder Morgan, and Chevron about the energy hub issue.

“Shell and Kinder Morgan were refreshingly candid,” he says. “'Yeah,’ they said, ‘We’ve got like 80-year-old tanks they might not survive [a major earthquake], we should probably be thinking about that.'”

In the meantime, here’s to attaching homes to their homes to their foundations, the first of the low-hanging seismic fruit.