Since the 2015 New Yorker article "The Really Big One," the city of Portland is considering codes to require private building owners to upgrade their unreinforced masonry (URM) structures.
Portland is reacting to the threat that an earthquake may, or may not, happen in the next 200 years while ignoring the significant impact that affordability issues are having on our city today.
The mandatory upgrades will immediately impact our most affordable structures: apartment buildings, small warehouses, historical structures, affordable housing, places of worship, nonprofits, etc. If this is passed by the City Council, the result will be an immediate citywide increase in rents.
A question for Portland is, why require these private upgrades while the city itself struggles with its own structures such as schools, government buildings, bridges and other critical public infrastructure?
Let's look at the history of earthquakes in the United States as well as worldwide responses to such disasters.
Since the beginning of our country, approximately the same number of people have been killed per year (2.2) from vending machines toppling on them as in earthquakes (3.1). Compare that to an average of 33 people dying per year from lightning strikes or 134 people dying per day from opioid overdoses.
Worldwide, approximately 13,000 people die per year in earthquakes. There have been roughly 13,000 gun deaths so far this year in the United States.
In Kathryn Schulz's New Yorker article, she notes: "The magnitude-9.0 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed more than 18,000 people, devastated northeast Japan, triggered the meltdown at the Fukushima power plant, and cost an estimated $220 billion." In fact, this earthquake killed very few people and caused very little property damage. The vast majority (93 percent) of the deaths and destruction was caused by the tsunami, not the earthquake, and this includes Fukushima.
Let's study "drop, cover and hold-on." The American Red Cross acknowledged that there never has been a study done that proved the efficacy of "drop, cover and hold-on." Why do we, then, put so much credibility into a practice that has never been tested?
I'm sure many of you remember using basements as nuclear shelters.
In vast amounts of video footage from around the world, it appears that building occupants almost always choose to vacate structures during earthquakes. Precious moments tucked under a child's desk is absurd when collapsing buildings, fires and tsunamis are what follows earthquakes. Coastal regions around the world are dispensing with the idea of remaining in place and instead promoting the immediate move to safety.
To make preparedness affordable, building occupants must contribute to the solution. It would be economically ruinous, for example, to suggest making the Midwest tornado-proof.
We've seen that you can easily exit one- and two-story commercial structures in fewer than 30 seconds, and even Portland Public Schools' exit drills prove that schools often can be vacated in a minute or less.
If you apply movement to an earthquake response, the costs will be reduced 80 percent as compared to that of a full seismic upgrade. By approaching seismic preparedness in this way, we can continue the battle for affordability that is at our doorstep in lieu of being disproportionately fearful of a threat that may never materialize.