Earthquake preparedness – where do we start?
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Earthquake preparedness – where do we start?

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The Cascadia Subduction Zone is a 1,000-kilometer long fault off the west coast of the United States that stretches from British Columbia to Northern California and separates the Juan de Fuca plate from the North American plate. This fault has the potential to generate a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that could cause significant damage with large-scale housing loss and economic consequences.

While residents of the Pacific Northwest have been hearing about “the big one” since the famous 2015 New Yorker article, this story aims not to focus on the hazard itself, but on the ways that individuals can prepare themselves, the role government can play in community preparedness, and an overview of the importance of equitable seismic retrofits for community disaster recovery planning.

Personal preparedness

Personal preparedness is in two parts: 1) supplies; and 2) structural improvements. The first part (supplies) can be approached through the documents provided by the emergency management offices in Benton County and Linn County to make sure you, your family, and your neighbors are prepared.

By working together with your neighbors and community you can collectively become prepared. Collecting supplies can be financially overwhelming and time consuming; therefore, these actions are meant to occur over a stretch of time. Emergency management may take 10 to14 days to provide emergency services to the community. Ensuring that you, your family, and your neighbors can support each other is critical.

The second part of personal preparedness refers to the physical structure of your home, and the contents inside (e.g. bolting the housing to the foundation, securing bookshelves to walls). These items can typically be completed with commercially available materials from your local hardware store. The state of Oregon is working on financial assistance programs to help families afford these improvements.

Government role

While each individual is responsible for their own preparedness, local and state governments will typically address preparedness in two ways: 1) funding opportunities for residents to retrofit their own homes, and 2) capital improvement projects that incorporate seismic retrofits.

The state of Oregon has two programs that provide financial assistance for seismic retrofits to commercial properties, schools, and emergency facilities. The Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program was developed as a lending program for energy efficiency upgrades, disaster resiliency improvements, water conservation measures, or renewable energy installations for residential and commercial properties.

To date, the state only allows property owners to use the funding for energy upgrades and installations; and only commercial property owners in Multnomah County can use PACE funding for seismic retrofits. Different states adapt the PACE program for disaster resiliency improvements in various ways. Oregon is currently expanding PACE for business and residential property owners to apply for seismic retrofit funding.

Capital improvement projects include schools, emergency services facilities, and utilities. The Seismic Rehabilitation Grant Program is a publicly funded program through Business Oregon that provides financial assistance for seismic retrofits of public K-12 school districts, emergency services facilities, and 9-1-1 centers. This funding can be awarded for both non-structural and structural improvements.

The Corvallis Fire Department and Muddy Creek Charter School have both received awards through this program. Corvallis is addressing seismic improvements to the water infrastructure through the city of Corvallis’s Capital Improvement Program. Existing water utility pipes are being replaced with more flexible and durable materials so thatt the water network can be operational after an earthquake. This program has a transparent budget with project allocation over a five-year time period.

Government preparedness occasionally involves hard decisions and the mid-valley is not an exception. The historic Van Buren Bridge that provides an eastbound crossing of the Willamette River into Linn County will be replaced to address earthquake resilience. Despite the historical significance, the bridge is seismically deficient. Damage to the bridge in an earthquake could result in difficulty getting goods and services in and out of the town. Assessing local infrastructure early is key in addressing risk and improving the resilience of the community over time.

Seismic retrofits

The federal government spent about $2.2 billion in mitigation for earthquakes from 1993 to 2016. This mitigation funding has resulted in an average benefit-cost ratio of about $3 to $1 for society. Pre-disaster mitigation will save a community financially in post-disaster recovery. This savings comes in the form of business continuity, residents continuing to live in their homes, and operations of utilities.

Seismic retrofits are a key part of pre-disaster mitigation. Access to funding for seismic retrofits and the improvement of our community through seismic retrofits are typically funded through bond measures. Encouraging  local, state, and federal representatives to prioritize these types of funding programs, and voting for measures that encourage seismic retrofit spending are key for a community to have access to such financial programs.

Erica C. Fischer is an assistant professor in the School of Civil and Construction Engineering at Oregon State University. Tiana Thorp is a graduate research assistant, in the School of Civil and Construction Engineering.

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