The Big One: PCC preparing for Distaster

By Mountain.Barber|November 4, 2016Cascade, News, Rock Creek, Southeast, Sylvania|

At this point, hopefully everyone in the region has had their ear talked off about the giant earthquake threatening the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, though, while it’s been in the media quite a bit since the big New Yorker article last year, we’re nowhere near prepared for it—and it might be the worst natural disaster in US history.

The earthquake itself is going to dwarf even the largest quakes produced by the San Andreas fault down in California. Subduction quakes like this one are among the most destructive events that occur on the planet. This one, like all the previous ones that have occurred in the region—the last on January 26th, 1700—are caused by the pressure being built up by the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate sliding underneath the North American plate into the mantle, compressing the edge of the North American plate as it does so. Eventually, the North American plate snaps back out into position, causing colossal amounts of destruction. And, unfortunately, it looks like we might be due—there’s around a 20 percent chance that a quake of Richter 8 or greater will hit in the next 50 years.

Portland will be in bad shape following the quake. Many of the bridges will be damaged or even collapse, as will many on-ramps and over-passes, though the Sellwood Bridge and Tilikum Crossing are both built to withstand major earthquakes. The bridges crossing the Columbia will go down entirely. Many, if not most, highway overpasses and bridges will collapse.  Portland also contains around 1,800 unreinforced masonry buildings—essentially, old buildings made just of brick. These are the buildings most likely to collapse in the case of a major earthquake.

landslide-hazards-mapLandslide Hazard Map

Terrell Hall on Cascade Campus is one of them. Thankfully, the other unreinforced mortar buildings on PCC’s four main campuses have all been upgraded, though there are some other older buildings at risk. To check if your home or workplace is unreinforced mortar, visit http://pdx.maps.arcgis.com/apps/Viewer/index.html?appid=a920f2a1fd2746f1a7efad1262aa1312 .

Landslides are one of the greatest dangers during the quake. Houses and buildings on hills and other vulnerable locations suffer fairly high risk of damage or even collapse due to earthquake triggered landslides. To check whether your home or workplace is at risk from landslides or other earthquake related damage, visit http://www.oregongeology.org/hazvu/ .

As far as the campuses go, Southeast and Cascade should escape with relatively lighter damage, excepting Cascade’s Terrell Hall. Rock Creek will likely suffer heavy damage due to the terrain it’s on- the whole campus is built on fill, which is just loose dirt or rock added to an area to level the landscape or raise its elevation. Rock Creek’s newer buildings will mitigate the damage somewhat, and the livestock kept on campus does mean that it’s better prepared in some regards than the other three. Sylvania has it the worst, the combination of at-risk geology and older, solid concrete buildings means it will suffer severe damage.

The redder areas will suffer more damage.

The redder areas will suffer more damage.

PCC has been taking some steps to prepare for the earthquake. Alyson Lighthart, geologist and Division Dean of Math and Sciences, is in charge of much of PCC’s earthquake preparation. When she came to PCC five years ago, there was little to nothing in the way of a plan for dealing with the earthquake.

Since then, she’s started CERT training programs on all four campuses. CERT, or Community Emergency Response Team, is a national initiative to train individuals in basic disaster response skills including fire safety, search and rescue, and disaster first aid. It also prepares those in the program to manage untrained civilians volunteering in rescue operations. CERT isn’t enough on its own, but it’s an important step in the right direction.

Lighthart has also been instrumental in decentralizing the decision making process in the case of natural disaster. Before, college leadership at Sylvania was in charge of all decisions in case of natural disaster—however, communications between the campuses are liable to be spotty or nonexistent after an earthquake, so independent disaster command at each campus is essential. Each campus currently has around 15-30 CERT trained individuals to coordinate a response.

However, neither PCC nor Portland in general are nearly prepared for the earthquake. Lighthart’s main focus beyond the CERT program is campaigning for everyone to prepare themselves. The single most important bit? Everyone that drives should carry blankets, water and food in their trunk. There’s a long list of other supplies that are good to keep with you, including medical supplies, rope, toiletries, and tools, among others, but blankets, water, and food are the most immediately vital.

Emergency supply buckets in every office are also an excellent idea, as are much more extensive emergency supply caches at home. This isn’t just handy in case of an earthquake, either- the comprehensive nature of earthquake disaster kits means that they’re ideal for a wide range of emergency situations.

If you live across the river or the interstate, you should expect to be stuck on campus after the quake. Even if a decent number of bridges do survive, traffic and debris will render transportation across the city incredibly slow. Expect to get around entirely via foot, bike, or boat.

Water pipes and mains will almost certainly suffer heavy damage during a quake, so stored water is the only reliable source of potable water—the river will NOT be safe to drink from. It isn’t safe to drink now, and the odds of dangerous chemicals leaking into the river after a quake is high—not to mention all the dirt and other sediment that will collapse into the river after a quake.

Modern cities don’t store a lot of food either- most is shipped in on a day to day basis, and grocery stores are required to ship their warehoused food to food banks in case of a natural disaster. It’s important to have a supply of non-perishable food set aside in case of natural disaster.

If this all sounds like it’s meant to scare you, that’s because it is. The subduction quake is going to be a massively destructive event, very likely the worst in American history. We should be afraid, and we should use that fear to prepare ourselves. When the quake hits—which hopefully won’t be for decades, yet we need to be prepared both as individuals and as a society. We need to be prepared to pitch in and help one another as a community, if we want to have a real chance at recovery.

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