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Climate change, quake threat spur fresh look at services

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Within days of the winter storm, Commissioner Steve Novick was talking about the importance of earthquake-proofing homes for the expected Big One. Behind him are homeowner Stacy Schubert, Clean Energy Works Executive Director Derek Smith and Congressman Earl Blumenauer. John E. “Bud” Rice thinks Portland did a pretty good job responding to the early February winter storms.

Of course, Rice is 90 and remembers when the city only had three or four snow plows. A retired city maintenance supervisor, he used to drive one of them whenever more than a couple of inches of snow fell in town. Until then, city officials figured Portlanders could get around OK with chains on their cars.

“People were pretty self-reliant back then,” says Rice, who started working for the city as an equipment operator for what was then the Street Cleaning Bureau in 1947.

The city’s plowing priorities were equally limited back then.

“We did the bridges first, then the streets to the hospitals, then the hills,” says Rice, who remembers his truck didn’t have any heat, and he had to stop and physically shovel sand out of the back as he drove his routes.

Portland’s storm response is a lot larger now. The Portland Bureau of Transportation — which absorbed the street cleaning bureau many years ago — has more than 50 vehicles that can be fitted with plows. Workers now concentrate on 518 miles of priority streets, including major arterials that support some of TriMet’s busiest bus lines.

And more agencies respond to storms now, too. This year the Portland Police Bureau and Portland Fire & Rescue searched for vulnerable homeless people living on the streets and brought them to shelters.

Some things haven’t changed, though. The city still does not plow residential streets, a decision Rice supports.

“If you plow a residential street, you create a berm of snow along both sides that traps cars and blocks driveways. People don’t like that,” Rice says.

And Portland still does not use salt to melt snow and ice. Rice still remembers when former Public Works Commissioner William Bowes banned it in the 1950s. At the time, Bowes, who served on the council from 1939 to 1969, was worried about the damage salt does to cars. Today, city leaders are more worried about its harm to the environment.

Preparing for the Big One

Despite the problems caused by the early February storms, city Commissioner Steve Novick says he is much more worried about what will happen when a major earthquake hits the region. Portland is in the Cascadia Subduction Zone, an active earthquake area that historically has seen big quakes about every 400 years. Oregon’s last major earthquake occurred in January of 1700.

Speaking before the Portland Business Alliance on Feb. 19, Novick listed the potential major problems that could occur, including completely impassible roads and bridges, the loss of Bull Run water to the west side of the city, and the collapse of the large fuel storage tanks along the Willamette River in Linton.

“What I really worry about is having no fuel to get around and drive the economy, in addition to the environmental damage,” Novick said.

Novick was appearing on a panel on emergency preparedness at the PBA’s monthly breakfast forum. Appearing with him was Eric Corliss, interim chief executive officer of the Oregon Trail Chapter of the American Red Cross, who seconded Novick’s concerns. Corliss said such an earthquake could be the first genuine catastrophe in America in modern times, dwarfing Hurricane Katrina, which left most of the roads in and out of the Gulf Coast area intact.

“You won’t be able to travel north or south, or east or west,” Corliss said about one potential result of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake.

Also speaking were Bill Nicholson, senior vice president for customer service, transmission & distribution for Portland General Electric, and Patrick Sabe, operations director of New Seasons. They all stressed the need for individuals, families and businesses to prepare for such an earthquake. Corliss said personal preparedness is the best defense against any natural or manmade disaster.

Novick also urged the attendees to make sure their homes and businesses are earthquake-proofed. He said between 50,000 and 100,000 Portland homes could be damaged or destroyed by an earthquake because they are not bolted to their foundations — a project that costs an average of $4,000.

To encourage more homeowners to act, Novick announced a pilot project to provide seismic and energy upgrades to around 30 homes in the Portland area on Thursday. He appeared at a news conference at a home to be upgraded with Oregon U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Novick and Clean Energy Works Chief Executive Officer Derek Smith.

The project is being funded by a $100,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which awarded it to the Oregon Office of Emergency Management and the city of Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Management.

Homeowners in the pilot project will receive funds to cover approximately 75 percent of the cost of the seismic upgrades. The goal is to test the feasibility of including seismic upgrade services as part of the overall home upgrade program services provided through Clean Energy Works in the future.

Funds limited for disaster response

The early February storms were the worst to hit Portland since the ones in January 2004 and December 2008. All three brought most of the city to a halt, raising questions about what else — if anything — could be done to fight them. The issue is potentially serious because some climate change models predict Portland could be hit with more frequent and more several winter storms in the future.

City officials already have said they are not willing to buy additional equipment to clear any more streets, however. During the storm, both Commissioners Nick Fish and Novick said there is no money to buy equipment that will only be used every few years.

Beyond that, city officials have offered a few ideas about what they might do different in the future. For example, Fish says the city needs to use social media better to get the word out to more people. He also thinks the city needs to stress that people should frequent locally owned businesses if they are stuck in their neighborhoods.

Other ideas could emerge in the future, however. Representatives from the various city agencies that responded to the storm will get together in coming weeks to discuss how it went.

And the cost of the response is still being tallied. The transportation bureau has a $500,000 contingency fund for responding to storms and other unexpected problems, including landslides. The bureau also can help fund its responses with savings accrued throughout the year in other parts of its budget.

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