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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Big One in Oregon will be worse

A reader passes along an interesting local angle on the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster story. Here is an e-mail message that the reader says he's received from Gerry Williams, the chair of the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission:

As of yesterday’s reports there were some 1000 dead and another 10,000 missing in Japan. In China a couple of years ago, thousands, many of whom were school children, were trapped in collapsed schools and died. In Haiti and Chile and New Zealand, thousands more have died in the past 18 months!

[T]wo weeks ago I sent a five-page letter outlining Oregon’s seismic vulnerabilities based on the previous three years testimony before our Commission. What you saw in Japan is nothing compared to what will happen in Oregon. Here are a few of the highlights from that letter (If you would like the original, I would be happy to send it to you – it’s a public document):

-- The 8.9 subduction zone earthquake that hit Japan on Thursday night (our time) had about ½ as much energy as the 9.2 quake that we expect from the Cascadia fault off of Oregon sometime in the next 50 years.

-- 1,170 public schools in Oregon are at a High or Very High risk of collapse in a seismic event – that represents a population of 300,000 students; we are now fixing those schools at a pace of about 10 a year;

-- There are about 1,000 dams in Oregon, many in the coast range, many of which will fail in a major earthquake;

-- ODOT has about 1,000 bridges that will fail in a major earthquake, and currently we are upgrading them at a pace of about 6 a year;

-- Oregon’s prisons have a total of one day supply of water and no excess sewer capacity, both of which will be lost in a major earthquake (though they will have ample food – several weeks or months supply);

-- The main fuel pipelines entering the state from the north cross into Northwest Portland’s "tank farm" where the fuel is stored in massive million gallon tanks. The pipelines are supported by fragile wood piles that date back to the 1920’s, and the tanks are likely to burst (if you saw the fires in Japan at their fuel storage facilities – multiply that by about 10 and you’ll get what Portland will face);

-- Power and natural gas utilities are unprepared for a major earthquake, and it’s likely power will be out for weeks and in some cases months;

-- There are hundreds of unreinforced masonry buildings, particularly in Northwest Portland’s Old Town -- most will collapse or be so structurally impaired that they will have to be torn down;

-- Tens of thousands of people will be injured in an earthquake (thousands will die immediately), but there is no excess capacity in Portland’s hospitals to accept that number of new patients;

-- Lifelines to the Oregon Coast will be shut off, bridges along Highway 101 will collapse, and portions of the roads will be impassable, making much of the Oregon Coast "islands";

-- The Portland Airport’s runways may survive, but it could be impossible to get to the airport from 82nd, 33rd, or I-205 due to bridge failures;

-- Most Port of Portland facilities were designed and constructed before modern (1994 and later) building codes;

-- Most bridges crossing the Willamette River in Portland are not seismically safe – and most are owned by Multnomah County, not ODOT, and are not slated for upgrades any time soon.

An initiative passed several years ago mandates all schools be upgraded in Oregon by 2032, a two billion dollar program. As of this writing we have allocated a total of $15 million with another $7.5 million to be allocated (if the bond sale actually goes through) this spring. The State Treasurer has advised the state that we cannot issue any general obligation bonds without endangering our bond rating and driving up interest rates – making them more costly to finance. So schools, emergency facilities, dams and bridges are just going to have to wait.

However, in the last session, knowing that the economy was still taking a dive, the state used up $200 million of its bond capacity to finance a monument to Phil Knight at the University of Oregon – because Phil gave the athletic department $100 million – none of which, however, could go to pay any of the capital costs of the new Knight Arena.

It’s about values and money – and a guy like Knight who has the money, gets to dictate the values. Because apparently, the Oregon Legislature values U of O basketball more than the potential of losing 300,000 school children’s lives in a major earthquake.

And don't forget the $250 million in lottery bonds for the mystery train from Portland to Milwaukie, Gerry. Money that's so badly needed for things that are real.

Comments (33)

Don't worry, Obama's not. He's chilling and filling out his NCAA bracket.

On the bright side :)

We can rebuild Portland the right way

Many natural fish runs will be restored

Coastal resorts will finally be afforable

We will have a real measure on the strength of the Sellwood bridge

and......If it takes 30 or 40 more years to happen I will likely only be buried more.

I work next to a fault line that goes right through the east bank of the Willamette. They only discovered this fault when a small earthquake happened in Ladd's Addition a few years ago.

It is extremely frustrating that our local bigwigs are spending public money so foolishly (and probably borderline criminally).

Look at the $500 million + they are spending at Bull Run to make our water worse!

This isn't particular news for me: I head the same exact thing when I worked for the Bureau of Land Management in 1997. In fact, when I was talking to one of the BLM geologists about this, I asked "So what sort of evacuation and disaster program does Portland have if we get an earthquake or volcanic eruption?" She laughed.

At about the same time, my landlady got tired of potential renters asking about the three-year-expired elevator inspection tag and the building's last earthquake preparedness inspection, and took down both. I figure that when Mount Hood blows up and buries downtown Portland under a half-mile of red-hot pyroclastic flow, the Mayor will be tweeting his experiences at simultaneously being buried and burned alive.

Speaking of the mystery train, all light rail would be out of service for years most likely. The tracks will look like pretzels in multiple places and bridges won't be safe to carry the trains.

Wouldn't it be something if this became the moment for a seismic (sorry!) shift in priorities for public spending in Portland?

It will take $400 million in lottery proceeds to pay off the $250 million in lottery bonds for the mystery train from Portland to Milwaukie.

All of which will come from the current lottery revenue stream already being spent on other needs.

So did the legislature, JPACT, TriMet or Metro check to see what current needs will be defunded in order to divert the funds to Milwaukie Light Rail?

No. Are they looking at it now? No.

Did JPACT, TriMet or Metro look at what else will be defunded due to the raiding of other current revenue streams to pay for Milwaukie Light Rail?

No. Are they now? No.

Nearly all of the $750 Million local match (plus $100s of millions in interest) portion of the $1.5 billion project is borrowed against current funding of services.

It is unfathomable that all involved have extened not a shred of due diligence to this reckless form of financing.

To quote Stephen Colbert, "Oregon is California's Canada".
WE don't matter...at all...to those inside the beltway, or out of it either.
As for the SamRand twins...they are so out of the loop they think that LLP is going to invite them both back to the Hamptons this summer.
Go by streetcar...it is not running? earthquake? tsunami?

-- Oregon’s prisons have a total of one day supply of water and no excess sewer capacity, both of which will be lost in a major earthquake (though they will have ample food – several weeks or months supply);

Hmm, the basic survival numbers taught in survival training is

3 minutes without air
3 Days without water
3 weeks without food.

Something is wrong with the picture at prisons. Perhaps that food isn't meant for the prisoners at all. Once they have all died from lack of water.....

Seismic upgrades for all of Randy's bum toilets NOW. Widen all bike lanes to allow for evacuation by two-wheeler.

I've often wondered just what will happen to the Big Pipe if there's even a minor earthquake near or across it? Isn't it a 2 mile long sewage storage tank hidden under the Willamette? Will Portland become infamous for the largest raw sewage spill in history?

No big surprise about any of this. I uased to work for the San Francisco Water Department way back in the 1980s. We had earthquake emergency drills at least 6-8 times a year. So did all the other utility companies; as well as the SF Police and Fire Departments. When the big one hit the Bay Area in 1989, the City was well prepared to deal with that emergency. As for Portland and Oregon; let's just say I'm grateful we don't live there any longer..

Everybody better evacuate now! I'll stay behind to mind the farm...

Anyone know how well PGE Park (er, Jeld-Wen Field) will hold up? Or how about the Steel Bridge, the lifeline of MAX (and, by the way, the only public-use, privately owned bridge across the Willamette River, being owned by the Union Pacific railroad)? How about the bridges that span the BNSF mainline in North Portland on Willamette Boulevard, Lombard Street, Fessenden Street and Columbia Boulevard - all of which are owned by BNSF and the City has complained that the bridges are not exactly safe?

Or...the MAX tunnel underneath the zoo? Or the Rose Garden or Memorial Coliseum?

Knowing that downtown Portland is built on fill land...I can only imagine that Portland will be much, much worse off in a major earthquake. And then the question is: do we tinker with Mother Nature and rebuild (like New Orleans), or do we put the environment first, admit that Portland is in a lousy location, and move out (like Detroit)?

And how much of OHSU will still be standing, or even reachable for that matter, or be a pile of rubble at the bottom of Marquam Gulch...

Spending on earthquake preparation is not glamorous. Trains and stadiums -- those are glamorous projects. Pie-in-the-sky planning for the millions we keep hearing are moving here...that's glamorous, too. But like Hollywood tinsel, none of it will do anybody a damn bit of good when what is inevitably Oregon's future comes to pass. You'd think some of the events of the past decade (Katrina, the SE Asian tsunami, Haiti, the Gulf oil disaster, Chile, Christchurch, Japan) would be a wake-up call to our elected officials to get moving in a serious way about an Oregon earthquake, but they keep spending on the glamor-toys. What a tragic waste of tax dollars.

Who's got the list of the qualified engineers to evaluate buildings?

Al M, you begin with the bioswale engineers who think they've discovered how to make water go uphill.

Eric: Engineers have said no lift bridge with cable suspended counterweights like the Steel, Hawthorne, Interstate, BN rail bridge over the Willamette can withstand a sizeable earthquake. The weights will demolish the structure.

In Japan strict building codes saved tens of thousands of lives.

In the U. S. these are known as job killing regulations interfering with individual freedom, specifically the freedom to work in a building where you will be killed by an earthquake.

I wonder, for the, what, $1.2 billion(?) that the Milwaukie Max will cost, how many homes and offices in our area could be retrofitted to withstand an earthquake? How many water heaters, or miles of gas or water lines, secured? How many foundations bolted? It is so much less expensive to retrofit than to re-build, not to mention the misery of being homeless for an extended period while waiting for your formaldyhide-ridden FEMA trailer to show up. Assuming, that is, that you survive the quake and ensuing firestorm.

I grew up in the shadows of the Hanford leaking radiation reservation. It permeates our life on so many levels.


My kids are slated to attend Sunnyside K-8 school in the next few years--a beautiful old-timey brick building that scores "low" on all the risk factors, and thus will not be retrofitted at all. Even though the Portland Fire Department had to move out of its old firehouse at Belmont and 35th, directly across from that same school, because it was judged too likely to collapse in the event of an earthquake. Yikes.

The 8.9 subduction zone earthquake that hit Japan on Thursday night (our time) had about ½ as much energy as the 9.2 quake that we expect from the Cascadia fault off of Oregon sometime in the next 50 years.

Not to judge the credentials of Mr. Adams, but I think he's playing a little loose with the facts. "Expect" is somewhat ill-definited--major (9+) quakes have hit the region on an average of over 300 to 600 years. Even if you accept the most pessimistic actual study, it's a 37% chance of a quake over 8 in the next 50 years. So I'm not sure how he goes from a 37% chance that an 8+ quake will hit the NW to a 9.2 quake we expect (which implies greater than 50% chance, no?) in the next 50 years.

That said, we absolutely should be devoting A LOT more funding to earthquake preparation.

By the time Portland is profoundly impacted by disaster, there will be limited ability to increase our public debt burden.

We will have spent it all on the municipal equivalent of shiny new cars, luxury vacations, and expensive dinners.

And the Sam/Rand crowd will be in the front of the lines, refusing any public employee givebacks to help further the public welfare.

A previous writer references Japans "strict building codes" Yes, this applies to high rises and commercial buildings, but the traditional post and beam engineering of Japanese housing has very little resistance to the horizontal movement of an earthquake. Nevertheless they still sharply resist the demonstrably stronger resisitance of American style platform stick built construction. Most Japanese housing in the rural areas affected are extremely poor quality post war construction. Did you note how many homes simply floated off their foundations? Housing is getting better in Japan but compared to the USA they have a long way to go. Neverthelss the James Roddy "Sky is Falling" earthquake forecast for Oregon continues to gain traction. I am particularly amused at how they can predict that the big one will be a 9.2. We can't even predict when or where it will occur much less the severity. Its a throw of the dice. Let's note that Mr. Roddy and his State Department of Terror (er Geology) crowd are betting on throwing a pair of sixes. The better statistical bet would be craps.

Living on top of a hill in SW Portland, I have quake insurance and everything tied down - the spring break quake to thank for that wake-up. Not too worried about tsunami though, and not in a panic over the little Reed reactor.

As far as Japan: the reactor issues are unfortunate, but not especially worrisome.

People who make wild claims about the area being uninhabitable for thousands of years seem to forget two little words: Hiroshima. Nagasaki.

Two thousand bodies washed up today.

OMG! Save the tram! Portland's "iconic" version of the Eiffel Tower.

Another little word: Chernobyl. Which released hundreds of times the radioactivity of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

I've experienced two earthquakes in my life, SF 89 and Istanbul in 99 and from what I have seen it is the fires following the quake that can do the most unrepairable damage. Here in Portland we have beautiful old wood framed houses on tree lined streets, many more would burn than collapse.Know where your gas meter is? How about your neighbors? Keep an adjustable 12 inch wrench near the meter, turn it a quarter turn,then check your neighbors if they are unable or not home. Next thing if your house is built pre war would be sure your house is bolted to its foundation. If not, do it or have it done asap. A well built home can still easily get knocked off its foundation.

And tie down your hot water heater too!

10% 5 year tax on the rich for infrastructure. Let put every construction worker in this country to work at at least $20 an hour for 5 years. That would be an investment.

I head the same exact thing when I worked for the Bureau of Land Management in 1997. In fact, when I was talking to one of the BLM geologists about this, I asked "So what sort of evacuation and disaster program does Portland have if we get an earthquake or volcanic eruption?" She laughed.

No doubt, even a small incident = instant gridlock!

Still think "extreme density" is a good thing?

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