In a story out of the University of Oregon, a geophysics professor said this month that the Cascadia Subduction Zone off our coast is like a giant boiler with a faulty safety-relief valve — pressure is inexorably building up and doesn’t seem to be leaking away anywhere. This leads him to be “very concerned” and convinced it is imperative that we take steps to prepare for a large earthquake and resulting series of tsunami floods.
What he didn’t say is precisely when this disaster will occur. The best guess is still sometime in the next 200 years. What this means is that instead of feeling powerless, we might have time to take a number of steps that will save many lives.
As Oregon’s earthquake safety task force Chairman Scott Ashford said, “It’s going to take 50 years to become resilient. But we need that 50 years to start now.”
One of the panel’s key suggestions is that Oregon appoint a seismic policy adviser, a subduction-zone tsar who would report directly to the governor and make certain that preparation is a key point whenever infrastructure investments and other matters arise that should take earthquakes into consideration.
Although our current governor does not exactly inspire confidence when it comes to initiating and following through on complex plans, it is worth pursuing the concept of making sure seismic preparation has a permanent seat at the table. If it turns out we have decades to get ready, a slow accumulation of incremental decisions can make a huge difference. Not only can new schools and other facilities be well built above the tsunami inundation zone, but with an adequate time horizon it becomes possible to consider building vertical-evacuation structures in places like Seaside, where the nearest high ground is at a distance from residential areas and may be hard to reach after the soil liquefaction that can be expected during a powerful quake.
Similarly, given enough time, critical bridges can be retrofitted or even rebuilt from scratch using the latest ideas for survivability. Cities can make more thorough efforts to zone around landslide areas. Contractors and architects can gradually build structures that take earthquakes and tsunamis into better account.
As summarized by OPB, experts also want Oregon to adopt the best available tsunami hazard maps and to spread word that home disaster kits should be built to last for two weeks, not the previously suggested 72 hours. On the issue of maps, we’re fortunate here to have the talents of Mark Scott, the enthusiastic expert whose skills have been put to use by North Coast cities to show exactly where safe places may be found in every neighborhood.
Ashford is completely correct — there’s no more time to waste in getting ready for a disaster that is 100 percent certain to happen.