Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Environmental Shakedown: Earthquake Impact on Portland

Angela McKennie
PHS 100 Environmental Studies
David Terrell
Warner Pacific College
September 21, 2010

Environmental Shakedown: Earthquake Impact on Portland
I work on the fifteenth floor of an office building in downtown Portland. While I am at work, the Willamette River separates me from my husband and two young daughters. With the fall of the World Trade Center towers fresh in my memory, there is not a week that goes by that I don’t ponder how my family and I would be affected by a major earthquake in downtown Portland. The thing that makes it worse is that experts say that “the big one is coming.”
While most geologists and seismologists agree that it is impossible to predict exactly when a major earthquake will occur in the Pacific Northwest, they concur that one will inevitably happen. “It is assumed that a major earthquake [in the Portland metropolitan area] would cause widespread devastation and claim many lives. Normal command and control systems will be difficult at best. Centralized resource control will be a necessity.” (Reuter, 2003)
Sometimes on my commute, I’ll play the “what if” game: what if there is an earthquake while I am in my office? What if I am in the elevator when it happens? What if the building collapses? In an effort to ease my mind, I looked into the structural integrity of the buildings in the downtown area. Unfortunately, what I discovered was of no consolation since my building was built in 1979,
With 30 years of engineering experience, Jed Sampson of the Portland Bureau of Development Services said, "The problem with our state code is the majority of the things we designed for after 1993, I believe, are going to perform pretty well...but our old buildings are really going to have problems. Those buildings are not designed for earthquakes... the seismic load was very low until 1988. In 1993 we actually started designing for the seismic forces." (Zschomler, 2010)
So now I knew that my building was not the ideal place to be during an earthquake. Perhaps I would be lucky enough to be out on an errand when “the big one” hit. In that case I would only have to worry about making it home to my precious family. Surely, with all the bridges in our fair city, this would not be an issue. Unfortunately, the information I found on the structural integrity of Portland’s bridges was equally discouraging, “Every bridge built in Oregon before 1991 is in need of seismic upgrades, said [senior vice president of bridge engineering for David Evans and Associates, Dave] Moyano, but the government and other agencies have to take into consideration spending priorities when determining bridge upgrades” (Scopel, 2002). Although the Oregon Transportation Improvement Act (OTIA) that was approved in 2002 will contribute $400 million toward seismic upgrades of Oregon’s bridges, the work will not be completed for several decades (Scopel, 2002). Seismologists predict that Portland will experience a major earthquake anytime in the next two to 200 years.
I have felt two earthquakes while living in Portland. Fortunately, the largest of those only registered 5.9 on the Richter scale. Based on geological similarities, experts suggest that an earthquake comparable to the 8.8 earthquake that was experienced in Chile in February of this year is highly likely. However, Chile has been able to bounce back from their earthquakes with relative ease. Because they are hit with major earthquakes every fifteen years, they have prioritized their earthquake preparedness; this is reflected in their stringent building codes. Portland, on the other hand, has not felt an earthquake comparable to the recent event in Chile in 300 years. For this reason, Portlanders have not yet come to terms with the reality of potential earthquake dangers, so our building codes have historically been comparatively lax (Weinstein, 2020).
While the knowledge that I have gained through my research on this paper will not lead me to start living a life of fear and paranoia, I will undoubtedly increase earthquake preparedness both at home and at work. More importantly, I will try harder to cherish every moment that I have with my family.

Reuter, P. (2003, January 21). City of Portland earthquake plan. Retrieved on 09/16/10 from
Scopel, L. (2002, March 13). Portland bridges span construction history. Daily Journal of Commerce, Retrieved on 09/16/10 from
Weinstein, N. (2010). Earthquake in Oregon would be similar to Chile’s. Daily Journal of Commerce, Retrieved from
Zschomler, R. (2010, July 22). Earthquakes on the west coast: are Portland and Seattle prepared for a mega-earthquake?. Retrieved from

No comments: