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January 27th, 2010 AARON MESH | News Stories
 

Quake-Up Call

There’s a massive earthquake in Portland’s future—and a government “prophet of doom” will tell you all about it.

     
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OREGON’S ORACLE: The state department of geology’s James Roddey says structures like Big Pink and the Steel Bridge are imperiled. “Bake some cookies,” he says, “take ’em to your neighbors and say, ‘Rescue me first.’”
IMAGE: Darryl James

In the reasonably near future, perhaps within our lifetimes and quite possibly as soon as tomorrow, an earthquake will strike Portland with roughly the same force felt this month in Port-au-Prince.

But while the Jan. 12 Haitian quake lasted less than 40 seconds, the shaking in Portland will continue for at least four minutes. Portland will feel a quake with a strength, duration and destruction never before experienced in the developed Western world.

Our cataclysm will begin 75 miles off the Oregon coastline. The ocean floor will split, sending shock waves racing under the water as fast as 17,000 mph. Those shock waves, felt first as a rumble, will slam into Portland in 30 seconds. The rattling will grow into a pulsing undulation that will repeatedly shove the ground up and down as much as 6 feet.

Landslides will ensue in the West Hills, sending mansions crashing on top of each other. Several of the 10 bridges across the Willamette River will collapse—the Steel Bridge, Sellwood Bridge and Marquam Bridge, most likely—and the rest will be impassible. Big Pink and other office towers will sway so violently their granite and glass façades will shear off and crash into the street, piling rubble up 4 feet deep. The Multnomah County Courthouse will tumble. Underground gas, power and water lines will be pulverized. The soil beneath the Portland International Airport will temporarily turn to soup.

About half an hour later, a 30-foot wall of water will crash into the Oregon coastline, with the tsunami flooding as high as 100 feet above sea level, sweeping in and out for hours.

This is not a pitch for the next Hollywood disaster movie. It is the scientific consensus on what will happen here sooner or later. And the latest data suggest it may in fact be sooner.

In the wake of the Haitian calamity, the human heart fills with compassion—and then with gratitude that it wasn’t you, and fear of when it might be. It is the job of one state employee to keep that fear stoked.

The man tasked with sounding the alarm for this impending catastrophe is not a scientist or an emergency response official. James Roddey is the Earth Sciences Information Officer for the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries. In other words, the Cassandra of our day is a $60,000-a-year PR flack.

“I am the prophet of doom,” he says with a wry smile.

From a home base on the ninth floor of a state government building (itself likely to remain standing but be severely damaged in a major quake) in the Lloyd District, Roddey takes his warning each year to about 30 cities in Oregon. His presentation, honed over a decade to include scientific-mystery stories, jokey anecdotes and group exercises, all to lighten the mood, is delivered to city councils and Kiwanis Clubs at a rate of one show a week.

“In another era,” he admits, “I probably would have been a preacher.”

He is a showman with a carefully honed patter—his stage presence falls somewhere between Al Gore and Tony Robbins. With a salt-and-pepper goatee and glasses, he looks a little like Stephen King, and uses his storyteller’s intensity to achieve the magnetic effects of any good evangelist. (To see a video of his presentation, go to wweek.com/oregonquakes .)

The 55-year-old Roddey sees his job as karma-balancing atonement for 20 years spent in television as a marketing director and producer. He never planned to work as a spokesman for scientists; at Wofford College in South Carolina, he majored in English, though he took every geology course offered at the small private school. In Flagstaff, Ariz., in the early ’90s, he produced an earth sciences series for the Travel Channel until it was cancelled. He then became a local TV promotions director in Boise, Idaho, before spotting a newspaper ad for the Oregon Department of Geology public-relations job.

And that’s how Roddey found himself living in a modest Oregon City ranch home with a view of the Willamette River, with his wife, Amy, and 12-year-old daughter, Sarah.

“I tease him about how gloomy he gets,” Amy Roddey says, “especially after a couple of glasses of wine.”

Roddey coordinates a range of local and state agencies for emergency-preparation exercises. In this most recent exercise, his model calculated 9,650 casualties in Oregon after an earthquake and the resultant tsunami.

“It may only be a few thousand people,” he says, “if they listen to me.”

In his presentations to civic organizations, he delivers a message unlikely to come from many other state officials: Don’t expect the government to help you. (The warning is perhaps more resonant in a city that essentially shuts down when it gets an inch of snow.)

“I encourage them to take personal responsibility for an event like this,” he says. “The white hats are not coming. The police and fire departments are going to be really busy. You’re on your own.”

Roddey believes Oregon’s government agencies are doing everything they can to prepare, under the constraints of shrunken budgets and the inevitable psychological apathy that comes with pre-emptively responding to an emergency that has never been seen. I ask him if Oregon is ready.

He pauses. “I’m not ready for an event like this,” he says. “And I’m probably the most paranoid person in the state.”

The prospective upheaval that Oregonians aren’t ready for is called a megathrust earthquake or, in bureaucratic terminology both more precise and more euphemistic, a Cascadia subduction zone event.

“If you divorce yourself from the human element,” Roddey says, “it’s just an astounding geologic event.”

It is undeniably interesting. About 75 miles off the Pacific coastline, two plates in the earth’s crust meet on a sloping fault line stretching from midway up Vancouver Island down to Humboldt County, Calif. Along the length of this 600-mile-plus fault, the Juan de Fuca Plate is slowly scraping under the North American Plate, building up pressure—much like slipping your foot under the edge of a Persian rug, which curls up until it pops free.

But instead of causing a muffled thump that wouldn’t frighten a housecat, the Cascadia subduction zone would thrust the two plates apart vertically, “unzipping” the length of the fault at a rate of a mile a second. Shock waves would register as high as 9.0 on the moment magnitude scale, the seismic measurement that has replaced the Richter scale. These ruptures cause the most severe quakes on earth.

The latest studies of undersea landslide debris, released last spring by Oregon State University geologist Chris Goldfinger, suggest a Cascadia subduction zone quake happens every 300 to 350 years.

The last one occurred 310 years ago yesterday.

It was 9 pm on Jan. 26, 1700. A giant wave inundated the coastal tribes of the Pacific Northwest, and remains a part of their oral legends. We know the exact date because a U.S. Geological Survey researcher, the aptly named Brian Atwater, looked at historical records in Japan showing unusual flooding of rice paddies and fishing villages—on Jan. 27, 1700. These 2005 findings, combined with evidence of far more catastrophic flooding along the Oregon coast, proved the tide arose from a Pacific Northwest earthquake about 10 hours earlier, measuring somewhere from an 8.7 to a 9.2—that’s the same size as the 2004 Indian Ocean megathrust earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 230,000 people.

Goldfinger’s estimates place the odds of a similar major earthquake in the next 50 years at 10 percent to 14 percent—about a 1-in-8 chance. But when Oregon’s luck runs out, what exactly will happen?

Standing in the Department of Geology conference room back in the Lloyd District, with a westward view of the Rose Quarter, the Willamette River and downtown Portland, Roddey and I engage in some speculative rubbernecking.

In a 9.0 earthquake offshore—which, by the time its shock waves reached 75 miles inland to Portland, would probably measure as the equivalent of a 7.0, the same strength as in Port-au-Prince but more rhythmic and, again, lasting about eight times as long—how would the 50-year-old Memorial Coliseum fare?

“Not good,” Roddey says. The best that can be said for it is that it probably wouldn’t completely fall down. The structural damage would be severe, and its glass exterior would come raining off.

How about the 15-year-old Rose Garden?

“Don’t know. It’s been built to the highest seismic standards. The seismic design code was changed in the mid-’90s, and that was about the time it was being built. So it’ll probably do OK. Doesn’t have a lot of glass to shed. But it’s a long span. It’s got a very long interior roof.”

He moves his gaze to the river. “Fremont Bridge: Ouch. Would not want to be on the Fremont Bridge. You could expect substantial damage, and even more damage to the ramps leading up to it. That’s what’s gonna collapse. I mean, it’ll be pancake season.”

Onward. “A bridge like the Steel Bridge that has those huge counterweights up high? Gone. The grain silos? Gone. Old Town? Brick-and-mortar buildings in Old Town? Collapsed. I-5?” He points to the Marquam Bridge. “That’ll just be toast. The Burnside Bridge? That’s pretty substantial. The Morrison Bridge? Ehh. Hawthorne? Gone. Ross Island? Gone. The St. Johns Bridge, with that long, lovely span? Toast. Houses in the West Hills?”

I hypothesize landslides.

“Yes.”

How bad?

“Bad—let’s say it happens in the dead of winter, when it’s been raining and there’s landslides already. And you start shaking things. And shake ’em. And shake ’em. And your house is built on little tiny twigs.”

Big Pink?

“Nobody knows what the effects of a subduction zone earthquake will be on tall skyscrapers [like the US Bancorp Tower]. You look at a tall-span building, and you’ve got the long-rolling earthquake waves. So the bottom is moving independently of the top at some point, because you’ve been shaking it for so long. [Towers] are built to sway in high winds.

“So what happens if the waves are resonating with the building? Now the building is beginning to move with the earthquake waves. And what if it reaches a point beyond where it’s built to take that stress? What happens to a big tall building like that? I think it’ll be an amazing thing to see. From a distance.”

He thinks. “Being downtown is a scary scenario.”

There are not many places you would want to be during a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake. Mount Tabor is good: The solid volcanic rock won’t move much. Indoors is, counterintuitively, better than outside, because indoors you won’t be crushed by the glass raining from towers like Big Pink. Portland City Hall is one of the better spots—short, squat and retrofitted to seismic compliance.

But there are many places where you would especially not want to be. The Portland Office of Emergency Management is particularly worried about 1,900 buildings—about one in 100—that are constructed from unreinforced masonry. City code requires seismic upgrades under a variety of scenarios including usage change, while alterations exceeding the rather exact figure of $219,328 trigger a safety study. In the case of unreinforced masonry buildings, seismic upgrades are required when changes for repairs exceed $37.50 to $50 per square foot—depending on the building’s height. Brick-and-mortar buildings that have not been upgraded include Cameron’s Books, strip club Union Jacks and the First Baptist Church.

The Department of Geology has also identified 43 Portland Public Schools buildings as high-risk, including Emerson School and the Rosemont Treatment Center for troubled teen girls. PPS downplays those findings, and says 77 school buildings had been retrofitted for seismic safety since 1995—and that bringing the rest up to current standards would cost at least $206 million.

Besides the danger to residents, unreinforced masonry buildings will litter downtown streets with bricks—that rubble, combined with what’s shed from structures still standing, will block MAX and streetcar service. In fact, the most pressing question immediately after a megaquake will be what infrastructure remains.

None of the Willamette River bridges will be functional. Any water, power and gas mains buried underground will have been destroyed. (In one small consolation, any debate surrounding PGE Park and the Tanner Creek Sewer line will be gone, as will the line itself. The stadium will probably stand.) Shipping lanes on the Columbia River will be filled with sediment. Portland International Airport may not be usable, since the runways are built on a floodplain that will liquefy during the tremors.

The fact Seattle and Northern California face the same overall threat exacerbates the predicament, since it means federal agencies will have to spread their resources across three states—and Hurricane Katrina showed what a heck of a job the feds can do in just one city.

The most recent training exercises make the somewhat rosy estimate that fewer than 1,000 people will die in Portland, though privately Roddey isn’t so optimistic. “These are very survivable earthquakes,” he says—but when you factor in contingencies like collapsing parking garages, the picture is less sanguine. The news is even worse on the Oregon coast, where less than 30 minutes after the tremors subside a 30-foot tsunami will smash in and out the length of the coastline at 35 mph, pulling down buildings and raking them back and forth across the beachfront. “It’s not the water that kills you,” Roddey says. “It’s the minivan. Or the shed, or the tractor.”

Even after recovery efforts are well under way, the state will have to endure aftershocks—secondary quakes on the Cascadia subduction zone as severe as a 7.5.

“That’s the one thing that nobody figures into the emergency planning,” Roddey says. “Aftershocks, for years to come.”

Upon hearing all this, I begin to feel a certain overwhelmed fatalism. Roddey says my reaction is typical of civic leaders he addresses.

“Within 10 minutes,” Roddey says, “their eyes glaze over and their minds shut down and they look at their watches.”

So Roddey has developed a new sales pitch. “I don’t dwell on the death or destruction. That completely shuts people’s brains down. I tell stories.”

He has, in effect, become the country’s first geological motivational speaker. He peppers his presentations with funny tales such as how Sumatra’s elephant herds—unlike the tourists—fled the coastline before the 2004 tsunami, and suggests: “Let’s put elephants at the Oregon coast. It’s a great idea. You’re building a tourist attraction. Who wouldn’t want to ride an elephant through the surf? And you put a big ol’ sign on the elephant’s butt that says, ‘If I’m heading to high ground, follow me.’” (He is only mostly kidding.)

The most common objection he hears is that he is simply making all of this up to increase his department’s state funding. (If that were the case, he hasn’t been very successful: The Department of Geology’s $12.9 million annual budget gets most of its money from the federal government and other agencies, and Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s last initial budget proposal didn’t include it at all.) Still, towns have begun to develop somewhat rudimentary disaster mitigation and response plans.

Cannon Beach released a summary report in 2006 that mostly identified potential problems, including “dead/injured visitors, hotel guests, employees and residents who are at work when tsunami hits” and, later on, “Long-term impact on tourist desirability.”

But Roddey notes that Cannon Beach has, in the past three years, placed more than 20 2-by-3-foot maps in public places identifying the impact of flooding and evacuation routes; it has also begun considering a plan to make its city hall the nation’s first tsunami-proof evacuation shelter. The Department of Geology, meanwhile, is this year partnering with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to launch a four-year, $2.7 million joint effort called “TsunamiReady, TsunamiPrepared” to educate coastal residents.

He has been impressed by individual communities’ ingenuity. In Baker City, civic leaders noted that the town’s three funeral homes can hold only 10 bodies each, and that casualties could be higher. He recalls, “Someone said, ‘Well, you know, there’s refrigerated beer delivery trucks.’”

Roddey will never have to manage such a gruesome aftermath directly. In Portland, such unpleasant preparations fall to the Portland Office of Emergency Management.

Inside POEM’s offices on the sixth floor of the Congress Center downtown, managers remain strangely upbeat.

“I promise you, it’s going to be ugly,” says Community Emergency Services Manager Keith Berkery. “But I also promise you we couldn’t have better people to work on it.”

Berkery says Portlanders’ skepticism about emergency management after seeing the paralysis that grips the city when it snows plays into why POEM hasn’t made quick progress upgrading buildings—in both cases, nobody wants to pay for something unpredictable.

“Last year, we had a big snowstorm,” he says. “People were like, ‘Why hasn’t my road been plowed?’ Well, if you want us to raise taxes for an event that happens every 30 to 40 years, OK.”

In an earthquake, POEM will become the coordinating agency for an immediate response by about 30 Neighborhood Emergency Teams ranging up to a couple dozen people apiece. The teams have trained since 1994 by putting out small blazes with fire extinguishers and rescuing human-shaped bundles of fire hose from under piles of concrete.

Immediately after the shaking stops, NET volunteers are supposed to head for the nearest fire station—each one is equipped with a ham radio and plugs to hook it up to a car battery or, if the power is on, the fire station antenna. Meanwhile, an incident command team should assemble at the Emergency Communications Center on the city’s east side, where the mayor and City Council members will be taken. (Officials will not disclose which 911 call center they’ll use; they don’t want crowds.)

POEM managers repeatedly emphasize that individual survival will depend on following simple guidelines—the advice “drop, cover and hold on” is a mantra—and having readied an earthquake preparedness kit: Seven days’ supply of food, a flashlight with batteries, a spare pair of glasses, “something for your feet and something for your head,” all within reach of the bed.

“I have Nutella in my kit,” Berkery says.

“You should always have good stress food,” agrees Planning and Mitigation Manager Patty Rueter.

“I have a paperback copy of War and Peace,” offers William Warren, coordinator of the NET volunteers. “You have a lot of downtime, and you need something to put you to sleep. No offense to the author of War and Peace.”

They then inquire if I have my own earthquake preparedness kit. I admit that I do not.

Rueter immediately makes me a basic kit: a rain poncho, a pocketknife, an air-activated body warmer and Handi Wipes. It is a touching gesture.

Roddey, who has bolted a water heater with flexible gas lines to the side of his Oregon City home and some of his bookshelves to the walls (“but my 37-inch flatscreen TV’s gonna be toast”), suggests people also stockpile some cash, several rolls of toilet paper—“you could probably trade toilet paper for money”—and an extra two-month supply of their prescription medications. (The aftermath of an earthquake is a terrible time to become further clinically depressed.) But he believes the best chance of weathering the megathrust earthquake will be the generosity of people you know before it happens.

As we stare out the window at the Portland skyline, I ask Roddey if, after 10 years of prophesying about Cascadia subduction zone earthquakes, he doesn’t secretly want to be present for the big one.

“Boy, no,” he immediately replies, and laughs. “I do not. If I could divorce myself from the human problems it’s gonna create, it would be a truly amazing thing to see. But it is a disaster of epic proportions.… ‘I told you so, I told you so’—you can’t imagine that the people who were saying that in New Orleans are feeling good about it.”


  • A native Texan who lived for a time in Louisiana, Roddey keeps a bottle of Tabasco sauce in his briefcase to season nearly every meal during his Oregon travels.

  • The moment magnitude scale is logarithmic, meaning it increases by orders of magnitude. While the Haiti earthquake was a 7.0, the 1960 Great Chilean Earthquake, which measured 9.5, was more powerful than all the other earthquakes in the 20th century combined.

  • Until 1980, scientists worked under the hypothesis that the Cascadia subduction zone was inactive. But then Mount St. Helens erupted, confirming that the Juan de Fuca Plate was still sliding underneath the North American Plate and turning to magma.

  • Until Goldfinger’s report last year, the estimated interval between Cascadia megathrust earthquakes was 500 years.

  • There is also the scenario that only the southern half of the Cascadia subduction zone will rupture, causing significantly less damage to Portland and giving the city more time to prepare for the full megaquake.

  • Roddey has tried to raise awareness of the Cascadia subduction zone earthquake of 1700 by holding a memorial service for the tsunami victims with Native American groups, including the Confederated Tribes of Siletz and Grand Ronde. But nothing has quite gotten organized.

  • Portland has three crustal faults running under the city, each of which could trigger earthquakes as large as a 6.5: The Oatfield fault lies in Washington County, the West Hills fault runs along Highway 30 and under downtown, and the East Bank fault is on the east shore of the Willamette River.

  • At the beginning of the current school year, Portland’s Southwest Charter School wanted to move to 690 SW Bancroft St., along the South Waterfront. But the City of Portland required costly seismic upgrades to the then-office space, making its conversion to a school impossible to afford for the school, which temporarily held classes outside last fall.

  • The one place Roddey will not visit is Long Beach, Wash., a coastal town with only one road leading to high ground. “That one just scares me,” he says.

  • The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has produced an 88-minute documentary, Shock Wave, that explains the Cascadia earthquake threat to Vancouver, B.C., and includes computer-generated scenes of Seaside, Ore., submerged in a tsunami. It is weirdly terrifying.
 
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