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Planning for ‘Big One’ continues

Oregon emergency disaster preparedness representatives are in Washington, D.C., working to get funding for the disaster that has yet to come.

Their efforts come on the heels of the Oregon Resilience Plan: Reducing Risk and Improving Recovery for the Next Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami. 

The study, released last week, is two years in the making and includes new information it might not have had if the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor failure in Japan not occurred.

A Tsunami Road Show will present this information and more at 2 p.m. March 23 at the Elks Lodge in Brookings.

The study address preparation and recovery for the entire state, recognizing that coastal Oregon will be most affected, followed by nearby coastal areas that will be severely damaged by the earthquake but not the tsunami, and then by valley areas that will likely experience extensive damage themselves. Eastern Oregon will experience “light” damage.

“We can’t codify it,” said Curry County Emergency Services Coordinator Don Kendall of bringing buildings into earthquake-resilient compliance. “We can’t say, ‘Starting right now, you have to retrofit. We have to identify it, plan and do it. That’s why they’re in D.C. There’s a lot to it (the plan). Even the thinking is new.”

This phase of the plan addresses the resiliency of infrastructure — highways, bridges, water systems — and what Oregon needs to do to make them more earthquake-proof.

Ends up, it’s a lot.

A 9.0 magnitude earthquake, the study predicts, will kill up to 10,000 people, destroy bridges, dams, highways and buildings and cut electricity in the Willamette Valley for up to three months — and six months on the coast.

Drinking water and sewage services would likely not be available on the coast for up to three years, and economic losses of $32 billion and tens to hundreds of billions of dollars in damage are not unrealistic.

In Portland, it’s likely old bridges spanning the Columbia and Willamette will fall, making shipping impossible in those waterways. Fuel depots line the Columbia. Buildings are not up to earthquake standards — even the state Capitol in Salem could easily be leveled, the report reads.

That’s far east of Curry County. Damage here will be far worse, the report reads. But retrofitting existing infrastructure — hospitals, schools, bridges and emergency service buildings — to lessen the damage will go a long way toward economic recovery. Without a quick recovery of physical structures, it is likely the state could lose a good percentage of its business and revenue as people leave.

“Resilience gaps of this magnitude reveal a harsh truth,” the report reads. “A policy of ‘business as usual’ implies a post-earthquake future that could consist of decades of economic and population decline — in effect, a ‘lost generation’ that will devastate our state and ripple beyond Oregon to affect the regional and national economy.”

Earth-shaking history

Geologists know the West Coast, from California to Alaska, is due for a massive earthquake, because written history in Japan indicated they’d been struck inexplicably by a huge wave in January 1700. Ring dating from “ghost forests” along the Washington and Oregon coasts show the land sank, allowing a massive influx of saltwater into forests and leaving behind towering dead trees that still stand today.

“We cannot avoid the future earthquake, but we can choose either a future in which the earthquake results in grim damage and losses and a society diminished for a generation, or a future in which the earthquake is a manageable disaster without lasting impact,” the report reads. “We need to start preparing now.”

Other major earthquake faults along the North and South Pacific oceans reinforce the reports’ sense of urgency. Faults release built-up pressure in the form of earthquakes, but major ones occur about every 300 years.

We are overdue.

Oregon experienced two 5.0 magnitude quakes earlier this month about 120 miles offshore from Bandon. Whether they represent a precursor of “the big one” can only be told after the big one strikes — or not.

After a 2010 8.8 earthquake in Chile, that country was able to restore 90 percent of its  communication services and 95 percent of its power supply within two weeks. Commercial flights were in the air in 10 days.

Japan learned that the hard way, ignoring centuries of community lore and building on land that had been hammered by tsunamis in the geological past. 

Even so, after its earthquake in 2011, Japan was able to restore more than 90 percent of its power supply in 10 days, 90 percent of landlines in two weeks, and 90 percent of its cellular base stations in 19 days.

Still, however, residents are living in “temporary” housing and some who have returned know they are in areas where radioactivity levels are five times the norm.

We are grossly unprepared for the big one, the report reads — starting with recovery efforts and the stability of existing infrastructure such as bridges, roads, fuel stations and water delivery.

Seaside has 83 percent of its population, 89 percent of its employees and almost 100 percent of its critical facilities in the tsunami inundation zone.

Here, most of the land around Brookings and Gold Beach would be damaged by liquefaction of sands and landslides — and that’s before the tsunami hits.

“The amount the land will drop varies from place to place,” the report reads, “with as much as 5 to 6 feet possible near Astoria, and even more possible at Brookings.”

Of the 2,567 highway bridges in the ODOT system, 982 were built without seismic considerations and, of the rest, only 409 were designed specifically with consideration of  Cascadia subduction zone earthquakes, the report reads.

“The list goes on: old, brittle iron water pipes in Portland, century-old bridges over the Willamette River, and highways and power transmission lines that traverse landslide-prone terrain.”

Isolated Curry County

The report takes note of the “wide geographic spread of a Cascadia disaster,” from California to British Columbia, and the isolation of numerous communities along the coast.

“The coastal zone (is) where severe shaking and damage to transportation systems would severely disrupt and isolate communities and where the major challenge after the earthquake would be to keep the population sheltered, fed and healthy,” the report reads.

Citizens here will need to be self-sufficient for far longer than the 72-hour period commonly advised for disaster preparedness. It would probably be more like weeks. Because food is delivered to local stores several times a week, supplies will run out quickly. Getting more here, the report reads, will depend on available “lifeline roadways and seismically engineered bridges.”

That’s why emergency representatives are in D.C., seeking money to retrofit infrastructure: The people and economy of the West Coast depends on it.

“A high proportion of the businesses in Oregon’s coastal communities cater to the tourist industry,” the report reads. “Most of these firms are small businesses that would not be expected to survive following a tsunami.

“Even if a business had sufficient capital to relocate, it is unlikely that the tourist industry will recover rapidly enough to support business startup. Local authorities may need to keep tourists out of the inundation zones, for safety reasons, for months or years after a tsunami.”

When it strikes

Of course, no one knows when it will strike. But the worst case scenario could arguably be on a hot July day when thousands of tourists are cooling off on the beach.

First the earthquake; then, within minutes, multiple tsunami inundations that will continue for up to 24 hours after the earthquake.

If the earthquake doesn’t level things, the tsunami will —further damaging buildings, bridges, roads and utility infrastructure. Even steel and reinforced-concrete buildings that survive the earthquake and tsunami may be damaged beyond repair. 

The tsunami zone will also experience coastal subsidence — places that had been dry land above the tidal zone before the earthquake, but will sink 3 to 6 feet during the earthquake and be inundated daily during high tides.

Almost all residents will be displaced from their homes — and likely have nowhere to go when bridges fail.

A very small percentage of Brookings residents are in the tsunami zone. But add in those living in Harbor and south, and the percentage jumps to about 25 percent of the area’s population. In Gold Beach, that number is almost 50 percent.

“The coastal area’s transportation system, electrical power transmission and distribution grids will be fragmented and offline, with long-term setbacks to water and wastewater services,” the report reads. “Reliable communications will be similarly affected. Because so many of these connecting systems are single lines with little or no redundancy, any break or damage requiring repair or replacement will compromise the service capacity of the entire line.”

Service restoration to 90 percent operational levels will take a more than three years in the earthquake-only zone and even longer in the tsunami zone. 

But without the road and highway system, repair can’t even begin.

And, “because these areas are lightly populated compared to the urban areas of the valley, strengthening them will tend to be a lower priority (from an economic standpoint) than projects that target the valley,” the study reads.

Rethinking how ports can return and tourism can rebound following a Cascadia event will require “an inspired strategy on the part of coastal communities and the state,” it added.

Getting rid of debris will also present a challenge in the aftermath of such a disaster. There are no landfills on the coast, so transfer centers will be quickly overloaded.

Impact to economy

The impact of the earthquake and tsunami on coastal businesses will be severe and long-lasting, the report reads.

“Even those (businesses) that remain will not have basic services, and the road system will be down, so that even if these services could be provided locally, there would be no way for visitors to get here.

“The state park system will be damaged, and there will be changes in the beaches and estuaries as the tides re-equilibrate to the subsidence along the coast. Recreational opportunities will become limited. In addition, the positive image that people have of the Oregon coast will be damaged if there are widespread fatalities.”

The report said the logging industry will suffer major damage to its road system, ports will likely be unable to allow goods to enter or leave, fishing fleets could be damaged — and retirees who bring substantial income to coastal communities might relocate.

People might move, putting strains on the workforce; and revenue to local governments will shrink, making recovery efforts that much more difficult. 

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