Our community, and even our entire region, has increasingly been discussing the risk of a major earthquake and what we should do in advance. This has surfaced recently in Eugene in the content of new cost estimates for a new city hall. I have created this page because several candidates in this race have spoken against seismic retrofits for a new city hall. I believe these positions are irresponsible, but much more importantly, their positions miss the broader issues, which I attempt to lay out here briefly.
The coastal Pacific Northwest is at risk of severe earthquakes at long intervals, as a result of the Cascadia Subduction Zone. While the timeframe of such earthquakes is highly uncertain and volatile, the earthquakes are nonetheless considered inevitable by those who study them. We are currently "overdue" – again, with uncertainty about the timeline – for an earthquake of magnitude 8 or 9 in this region.
For those unfamiliar with the risk, I strongly encourage learning about it. A few resources:
- Nationally, we attracted attention with an excellent New Yorker article last year ("The Really Big One," July 2015).
- Locally, we conducted a Eugene-Springfield Vulnerability Assessment in 2014. I consider it an important resource.
- Oregon Public Broadcasting has produced an excellent documentary series on our state of readiness (OPB's Unprepared).
These and similar sources make the clear case: we are at severe earthquake risk in this region.
Are we ready for The Big One? Local policy in an age of major earthquake risk
While we face tremendous risk and poor readiness, there is much that local government can do to protect residents. It starts with better thinking – in terms of insurance, and in terms of the long-term effects for our people and our economy.
Preparedness: There are many short-, medium- and long-term actions we can take to prepare households and critical infrastructure from the worst effects of a major quake and its aftermath. Fortunately, many of these actions are underway, albeit slowly and with little local leadership behind them. I will give these efforts further momentum.
One example: To boost community and neighborhood preparedness, we could do much more to help neighbors and neighborhoods organize Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs). For more information, see FEMA's page on CERT efforts.
Recovery: Beyond the quake and its immediate impacts, we must think about the long-term trajectory of the economy. In short, there is a strong business case for making public buildings and public infrastructure more resilient, and ready to bounce back into full function after the immediate effects of a quake have been addresses.
The role of public buildings
In particular, public buildings must lead the way. Again, the business case is clearly defined. If we are truly planning a 50- or 100-year building for city hall, we want that building not just to be safe during a quake, but fully functional during an extended recovery. Since many of our otherwise aging and long-lived buildings will not survive the quake, it will be particularly important for our newest buildings to remain standing – and functional.
Public partnership and support for better buildings
I propose that we give financial assistance for all public and non-profit buildings, including schools, to ensure that they are built to a higher standard (operational vs. life safety). The incremental cost of making a building more resilient can be just a few percent of the upfront costs, and we need to ensure that developers and future building owners have the incentive to make those changes. Currently, buildings must only withstand the quake sufficiently to allow individuals to exit safely; our current standards do not require that the building be capable of being operational after the quake is over. This is a mistake, and we can fix it.
In exchange for modest subsidy, these buildings would then be candidates to assist in response and recovery, improving the broader community resilience. This would be an excellent deal for everyone involved.
We need a candidate who will stand up for prudent long-term thinking. Please consider the ideas here, and be in touch with me if you have any questions or ideas to share.