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California Earthquake (copy)

A crack is seen Saturday in a gas station's driveway following an earthquake Friday in Trona, Calif.

Earthquakes are back in the news (not that they ever really went away), with a pair of strong temblors shaking buildings and rattling nerves in Southern California, and a new piece by New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on the Cascadia subduction zone, the fault line that's just off the West Coast.

Schulz, as you might recall, terrified thousands of Oregonians with her initial piece on the Cascadia fault, which every 300 years or so unleashes massive earthquakes and, scientists say, appears to be overdue for the next one. Such big earthquakes on the ocean floor also unleash huge tsunamis. In her new piece, Schulz estimates that a magnitude 9 quake along the Cascadia fault will unleash a tsunami that will "obliterate everything inside a skinny swath of coastline, seven hundred miles long and up to three miles deep, from the northern border of California to southern Canada." (The online version of this editorial includes a link to Schulz' new piece.)

In that light, Schulz rips into House Bill 3309, passed by this year's Oregon Legislature and recently signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown. The bill overturns a nearly 25-year-old ban on building new schools, hospitals, jails, and police and fire stations in the state’s tsunami inundation zone.

This bill wasn't particularly controversial in the Capitol; it passed easily, with generally bipartisan support. The bill was needed, its proponents said, because without new emergency services buildings, coastal residents and businesses will not be able to get property insurance and without new schools, property values will fall.

Schulz has little patience with that argument. 

The law, she writes, "makes it perfectly legal to use public funds to place vulnerable populations — together with the people professionally charged with responding to emergencies and saving lives — in one of the riskiest places on earth. ... Whatever the supporters of HB 3309 would have you believe, or are trying to convince themselves to believe, the fact of the matter is that, if schools and hospitals and prisons are built in the inundation zone, some of their occupants will still be there when that wave hits, and those who are will not survive."

And she goes on: Building police and fire stations in the inundation zone ensures that much, if not all, of their rolling stock will be destroyed, severely hobbling the ability of first responders to administer aid.

Her piece does not mention Oregon State University, which is constructing a new building for its Marine Studies Initiative in the inundation zone in Newport; the building is designed to offer refuge for up to 900 people in the event of a tsunami. The idea basically is to move people vertically above the torrent of water. The engineers working with OSU are confident the building will survive the double impact of a big quake and the subsequent tsunami. In response, a number of OSU's geologists have said that, while it may be possible to design a building that can survive, that doesn't answer the question of why we should take the risk in the first place.

In that light, legislators might want to reopen that discussion of risk in terms of HB 3309 when they gather for their short session next February.

In the meantime, the quakes in California serve as a reminder to the rest of us that we can do things to lessen our own risk in the face of an earthquake — or any natural disaster. You probably have a to-do list of preparatory actions that you've been crossing off one-by-one; this would be a good time to dust off that list. Need a place to start? Check out the resources available at the Oregon Department of Emergency Management's website,  https://bit.ly/2Jxu6uo 

You don't have to do it all at once. But each little step increases your ability to ride out the big one — or any little ones that come your way as well.

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Originally published July 8 in the Corvallis Gazette-Times.

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