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Earthquakes: Get ready for the big one

Multnomah and Linn counties would be hardest hit


It’s no secret that the Pacific Northwest could — at any time — experience a catastrophic earthquake like the 9.0 that hit the Tohoku region of northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011.

A year after that devastation, Discover Magazine published an article about the dangers of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a fault that runs parallel to the Pacific Coast from northern California and Vancouver Island, Canada, “is alarmingly similar to Tohoku, capable of generating a megathrust earthquake at or above magnitude 9, and about as close to Portland, Seattle and Vancouver (Island) as the Tohoku fault is to Japan’s coast.”

Photo Credit: CONTRIBUTED - Damage would be extensive if the Pacific Northwest has a 9.0 magnitude earthquake like the one that decimated areas of Japan in 2011. Experts say we're overdue.The article’s headline, “The Giant, Underestimated Earthquake Threat to North America,” is disturbing enough and the opening paragraph states the “enormous fault off the coast of the Pacific Northwest has been silent for three centuries. But after years of detective work, geologists have discovered it can unleash mayhem on an epic scale.”

Calling the Cascadia Subduction Zone a “tectonic time bomb,” the article goes on to make this ominous statement: “What happened in Japan will probably happen in North America. The question is when.”

The answer is soon. The recent 6.8 magnitude earthquake in Northern California — on March 10, 2014, almost exactly three years after Tohoku — may be an indication that we’re already overdue.

Community Digital News (www.commdiginews.com) reported March 27 that the California quake wasn’t in a highly populated area but was the same size as one that hit Kobe, Japan, in 1995 that killed more Than 6,000 people and created $100 billion in property damage.

“Unbeknownst to most people in the Pacific Northwest, they are in grave danger,” the article states. “The Pacific Northwest is 71 years overdue for an immense 8.4 or larger earthquake, and tens of thousands of lives are at risk.”

It gets even worse. The article correctly states that the worst natural disaster in U.S. history was a hurricane that hit Galveston Island in 1900 when 145-mph winds overswept the island and 6,000 people died.

Photo Credit: CONTRIBUTED: DOGAMI - The Cascadia Subduction Zone, a 600-mile fault where two of the earth's tectonic plates collide.The next Cascadia (quake) will dwarf it,” the article states. “Oregon alone will see upwards of 10,000 dead.”

That’s a terrifying thought, but we all can’t move, and government entities are trying to develop plans and codes to help mitigate the worst case scenario.

After the 2011 earthquake in Japan, the state commissioned a study of Oregon earthquake and tsunami preparedness for a 9.0 Cascadia earthquake, called the Oregon Resilience Plan, more than 300 pages long, published in February, 2013.

The city of Gresham also has plans for dealing with the threat of earthquakes, but in 2012, in an article published in the Portland Tribune, James Roddey, director of communications for the Oregon chapter of the American Red Cross, said we live in one of the “most dynamic places on earth” in terms of geologic forces.

“We have the potential for an earthquake larger than anything that will ever happen to California, an earthquake the equivalent of what happened to Japan,” he said, and warned that people must be prepared to take care of themselves as government resources will be strained.

Even though Gresham is close to Portland and would have profound damage if we had a 9.0 earthquake, it wouldn’t be as bad as downtown Portland with all its skyscrapers, Roddey said, but East County has many buildings not designed to withstand the shaking of an earthquake.

So the best we can do is be as prepared as we can be. The state’s Office of Emergency Management issued a statement last week asking people to register to take part in practicing “Drop, Cover and Hold On” during the 2014 Great Oregon ShakeOut Drill at 10:16 a.m. Oct. 16. Register to take part at shakeout.org/oregon.

People should also assemble emergency kits to prepare for the aftermath of an earthquake and can learn more at www.oregon.gov/omd/oem/pages/plans_train/earthquake.aspx.

Roddey warns that people may be pretty much “on their own” for some time after a major disaster, but what are governments doing?

The state’s Resilience Plan has eight task groups to address the state’s “critical facilities and its energy, water/wastewater, transportation and telecommunications systems, mitigate tsunami risk and enhance business continuity.”

Multnomah County offers advice on preparing for an earthquake at multco.us/em/earthquakes-and-tsunamis and the city of Gresham offers preparations on several fronts.

First, city building codes “address construction requirements related to seismic activity,” according to Eric Schmidt, lead city building official and director of Community Development Services.

“Building codes are meant to address how a building is constructed to resist the forces created by an earthquake, allowing occupants to safely exit a building,” Schmidt said. “That said, building codes do not insure that a building is ‘earthquake-proof.’ Even with code-compliant buildings, there may be significant earthquake damage. The building codes are considered successful if the occupants are able to exit.”

Codes are constantly being updated, Schmidt said, but older buildings, especially those built with unreinforced masonry and brick, are more susceptible to earthquake damage. Wood frame single family homes perform “fairly well,” he said, depending on their architecture and when they were built.

In the case of a large-scale disaster, Emergency Services Manager Todd Felix said the city maintains emergency operations plans to address functions such as alerts and notifications, public information, sheltering and feeding, medical operations and debris management.

But if “the big one” does occur, people will also need to help themselves, which the city fosters through its program Neighborhood Ready, which combines crime prevention with disaster preparedness.

“Through this program the citizens of Gresham can work with their neighbors, usually 10-15 homes, to become more organized to assist each other during a disaster...by creating neighborhood teams who will check on their neighbors, provide first aid and assist the city by gathering information they see concerning damage in their neighborhood,” the brochure states.

To learn more and download the Neighborhood Ready brochure, do a search on the city website at greshamoregon.gov.



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