Are we ready for a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake?

The seismic vulnerability of much infrastructure and many homes and workplaces in Washington County, and the limited preparations made so far, suggests that we are not.

Past experience holds insights into the potential impact of a major event here. Once the leading city in the West, San Francisco was 80 percent destroyed by an earthquake and fire in April 1906. Many homes and buildings collapsed; thousands more went up in smoke. Some 3,000 residents perished, a quarter-million became homeless and countless businesses closed or moved. The city lost much manufacturing capacity, population and its place as the pre-eminent Western metropolis.

First responders were blamed by some for the devastating loss of life and property, but culpability lay with elected officials who ignored repeated warnings from their fire chief to upgrade the city’s aging water systems and effect other preparations. They would be condemned for inaction and voted out, but it was too late. Despite heroic efforts by firefighters, the city was doomed before the first alarm sounded.

Let’s hope the same thing doesn’t happen when a subduction zone earthquake strikes the Northwest, because the outcome could be tragic. The San Francisco event lasted just 65 seconds with an estimated magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale. A Cascadia quake will rock and roll for five minutes or more (longer than the Bee Gees’ song “Stayin’ Alive”) and register a magnitude as high as 9.3. Since the scale is logarithmic, Cascadia could be 150 times stronger.

Large earthquakes often trigger fires, ignited by electric arcs and ruptured natural gas lines, which can merge and become uncontrollable if not quickly checked. In some quakes, fires caused more destruction than building-shattering shaking. It was cinder and flame that leveled San Francisco in 1906, Yokohama in 1923 and much of Kobe in 1995.

Should a Cascadia quake damage fire stations and water lines when conditions are right, the result could be a conflagration. Most homes here are of wood frame construction, less vulnerable than masonry but more combustible, packed tightly into the urban growth boundary. Most are not insured against earthquakes or seismically retrofitted.

Several Washington County cities have vulnerable water systems, and a half-dozen fire stations need seismic upgrades. A 2011 Department of Homeland Security analysis found that nearly 900 fire stations in the Northwest would be destroyed by a Cascadia quake, with 31 percent of Oregon fire stations damaged enough to require 18 months to resume normal operations.

Grim statistics notwithstanding, surviving Cascadia and recovering in a reasonable time-frame is possible if officials and business leaders work to mitigate seismic hazards in advance and restart the economy afterward. Action is needed to preserve lives, property and the region’s economic viability.

With a new legislative session under way in Salem, earthquake readiness should be on lawmakers’ radar screens. Bills in committee include HB 2269 and HB 2270, which create a resilience office to oversee earthquake preparation by state agencies; SB 85, authorizing local government loans to upgrade residential buildings and business properties; and SB 95, requiring gas stations to be able to pump fuel if electricity fails. Legislators should implement recommendations of the “Oregon Resilience Plan,” the official guide to earthquake preparation.

Washington County will seismically upgrade several key facilities and should do more. Cities should offer incentives for homeowners to retrofit residences. Voters should approve measures to strengthen infrastructure, especially bridges and water systems. Citizen emergency response teams should be trained. Ongoing publicity campaigns must involve everyone in earthquake preparation.

If we heed lessons of previous seismic catastrophes and plan accordingly, we should not have to repeat the outcomes. Strategically targeted, properly monitored investments by government, the private sector and citizens in earthquake readiness will pay dividends and prevent an inevitable natural disaster from becoming an avoidable tragedy.

Sig Unander is a communications professional who lives in Cornelius.

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