It’s time to prepare for the megaquake

From the left: Allison Pyrch (President, ASCE Oregon Chapter), Steve Pegram (Director, Columbia County Emergency Management), Anne Parrot (Coordinator: Emergency Preparedness - Public Health Foundation of Columbia County), Norm Miller (Chief of Police, City of Scappoose), Lonny Welter (Transportation Planner, Columbia County Roads Department), Sue Nelson (Public Works Engineering Directory, City of St. Helens) and Dave True (Public Works Director, City of Clatskanie).

There’s a one-third chance we will experience the Cascadia Subduction Zone magnitude nine earthquake within the next 50 years. When it happens you will experience up to five minutes of shaking and if the earthquake generates a significant tsunami, Oregon can expect an estimated 5,000 fatalities according to the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries in 2010.

Wednesday Nov. 29, Columbia County, The Oregon Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Portland Post of the Society of American Military Engineers (SAME) hosted a community awareness event to highlight seismic risks and vulnerabilities in Oregon, at the St. Helens High School. Partnering with local engineers and emergency managers there were tables in the hallway and a panel discussion after the screening of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s (OPB) documentary ‘Unprepared’.

In the documentary it was mentioned that Oregon is looking to Sendai, Japan where they had a major earthquake in 2011, similar to what Oregon can experience, to learn and prepare. In Sendai they experience a lot of earthquakes so people were smart and escaped up high when the 2011 earthquake hit. Unfortunately, what people considered as high was not high enough this time. In the Pacific Northwest the Juan de Fuca Plate and the North American plate are colliding and converge at the rate of 1-2 inches per year. The documentary notes that water will rise as high as 70 feet high some places after the earthquake hits and generate a tsunami. Living in Columbia County the tsunami will not affect us as much as it would on the coast. Allison Pyrch, President for ASCE Oregon Chapter said the tsunami only will go up the Columbia River a couple of miles but recommends people to be above 100 feet elevation for safety.

After seeing how unprepared Oregon is the panel discussion involved questions from the audience and answers from ASCE, SAME and local engineers and emergency managers, regarding Columbia County.

Director of Columbia County Emergency Management Steve Pegram said there’s an organization called Homeland Security and Emergency Management Commission in Columbia County that so far have been partnering with public sectors and businesses, providing a table for discussion. “We do have a mechanism in place and are going to include the private sector more - starting in 2018,” Pegram said. He also pointed out that the government aren’t able to provide services and information alone and said that they need everyone, either you’re a business owner or manager, or not, to take charge and prepare for the expected megaquake.

Pegram suggests going a block or two from your house and work, connecting and getting people to go to a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) class and create a community plan together. The CERT class teaches you basic skills on how to survive, basic triage and basic first aid. The next class will start April 5, 2018.


When it comes to roads the audience seemed to be most concerned about failing bridges. Transportation Planner for the Columbia County Roads Department

Lonny Welter said one-third of the bridges probably will be survivable and usable, one-third usable in some fashion, and one-third flat on the ground.

“I can’t tell you which ones those are. It depends on the ground, the shockwaves coming through and the engineering of the bridge,” Welter said. “The Columbia County Roads Department has replaced about 42 bridges since 1994 that are going to be more survivable.” Welter pointed out that short bridges are more survivable than longer bridges – no matter age.

In Columbia County the Scappoose Vernonia and Apiary Road are alternative routes. The Scappoose Vernonia Highway will be hardly affected because of its high number of bridges. Not only will bridges collapse but there will also be several landslides. “The bottom line is that Columbia County is going to have isolated communities because the transportation infrastructure is basically being taken out.” Welter said.

“We go from one season to the other knowing where the slides were last year, but going into next year we may have slides we’ve never seen before. With an earthquake it’s the same thing. We’re going to see things we didn’t anticipate.”

Welter said that Apiary Road is going to be the most survivable because it doesn’t have any bridges but that there probably will be some landslides. As far as highway 30 goes there didn’t seem to be too much knowledge in the panel other than the mentioning of a big bridge at Cornelius pass. Welter said that Tide Creek Bridge north west of Deer Island still has an old highway below that potentially can be used as a bypass. The transportation planner informed the audience that the only fuel that’s going to be available after an earthquake is what you have on hand, in your vehicle or cans at home.

Pyrch said natural gas systems are newer and more anti-explosion. “The pipeline may fail but the leak will be minimal,” she said. The tank farm on the other hand is going to be a major problem. “It’s probably going to be the largest environmental catastrophe in history for Columbia River,” Pegram said.  

Pyrch said older concrete buildings and wood frame structures, in general, usually go well. “If it’s built before 1995 you want to get someone to check that the structure is stuck to the foundation,” Pyrch said. “I do recommend that because it’s better to be at home than in a shelter.”

Pyrch also said that if you have a well and septic tank under the ground, it should be okay unless you have a fault in your backyard. “What you need to do is make sure you know what your weaknesses are and repair them. If your well is dependent on power make sure that you have some sort of generation or hand pump,” Pyrch said.  Dikes in Columbia County are built poorly and expected to fail.

The President of ASCE Oregon Chapter expect us to be out for weeks, months and years with certain systems.

“In the United States we are really good at paying for our infrastructure fixes in two-year election cycles because nobody wants to pay taxes, and nobody wants to put in their budget that they spent a lot of money on infrastructure,”

Pyrch said. In 2017 ASCE report cards for America’s infrastructure estimates that an average American family spends $9 a day on failing infrastructure, depending on infrastructure. “The hassle of dealing with it would be $4 dollars a day for a family to fix it,” Pyrch said. “We need, as a society, to make the decision to fix those things.” Pyrch explained by proposing we could build a road that would stand up for studded tires for 20 years. “The problem is that it is expensive. Instead we grind and replace. It works for a while but I can guarantee you that we spend a whole lot more money doing that every five years instead of just building a new one every 20 years.” Pyrch said we need to design things to last 50-75 years so it lasts longer and we have minor maintenance. “We need to spend our money intelligently as we go forward. You need to let your local officials know that’s what you want them to do, and city councilors, and state representatives. In the long run it will save us money.”

 Pyrch said there are a lot of federal grants that come in for the infrastructure side as well. “Oregon in general has 4 million people; California has 40 million people, and I guarantee you a lot of our help comes from federal government through grants and other things, but California do pay they’re taxes. We do benefit from people who do pay taxes,” Pyrch said. California has replaced 35 times as many bridges than Oregon.

Pegram said the biggest problem in rural counties like Columbia County is the funding. “The government cannot do this for you. You got to use your time and treasure to make Columbia County more resilient.”

Plan and prepare

Pyrch said that isolated communities will exist not only to Columbia County but all over Oregon and Washington. She said it is important for everyone to have at least two weeks of supplies at home, have a plan for what you’re going to do either you’re at home or at work, and to talk with your kids and teachers about their plans. The same apply to eldercare.  

“This is a community development because it is going to be a while before we all get home. You have to make sure that you and your families have a plan on what to do and where to go after the big event,” Pyrch said.

Pyrch proposed to develop a prepared resilience plan with you neighbors. Pegram agreed and said a prepared resilience plan is the number one thing you can do today to make yourself more resilient.

“The infrastructure will be destroyed, Martial law implemented to prohibit movement and there will be bad people stealing your stuff,” Pegram said. “I’ve spent three and a half years with Katrina. There were a lot of bad people taking stuff from good people. Particular people are hungry, can’t get their medication, whether that medication is recreational or legal.”

Pyrch has been to Chile, Japan and just came back from Mexico, and have seen the results of earthquakes on close hold.

“Those are three areas that have a lot of earthquakes and they have cultures that are super ready for this. They had almost no martial law or issues because their people knew that earthquakes were happening, they knew what to do and pulled together communities and helped each other out,” Pyrch said.

“As long as you’re mentally prepared that’s what will help us the most.”

One of Pegram’s biggest fears is that we won’t exist anymore after the earthquake, and that people will just go somewhere else, referring to New Orleans that is the same today as it was the day after Katrina. “I like it here. I don’t want to see it fail,” Pegram said. “One of the key ways that we can ensure that Columbia County doesn’t fail is with resilience, and the key to that is putting everybody back to work as quickly as we can.”

Anne Parrot, Coordinator for Emergency Preparedness with Public Health Foundation of Columbia County informed the audience that Columbia County is a medical professional shortage area. “We do not have enough medical people in Columbia County to meet the needs,” Parrot said. She said everyone should have conversations with their doctor and pharmacist about what medications are life saving, and which ones you can do without and start stock piling. “You may have some uncomfortable symptoms but not die,” Parrot said.

“This is another place where elected officials can help out too,” Pyrch said. Pyrch also said that it in 2015 there was a bill to require people to get 60 days worth of medication to start stock piling. “It didn’t have a whole lot of support,” Pyrch said.

Pyrch recommends strapping your house. “I have not strapped my TV shelf to the wall, and that’s where I spend a lot of time, so if I die in my house it’s going to be because the TV shelf falls on me - which is stupid,” she said. “Be aware at home and at work where things are and be prepared for when the shaking starts.” Pyrch also suggests having cash on hand, since debit and credit cards will be unavailable, and to have emergency contacts. Having an emergency kit is not only beneficial for expected earthquakes but can also be good for a snowstorm or when you’re stuck in traffic too. “I used the toilet paper in there on the freeway in a snow storm,” Pyrch said.   

If the earthquake happens in the middle of winter there will be some plusses as well as minuses. It’s going to matter how much water we have for a flooding standpoint and how wet things are for a landslide standpoint,” Pyrch said. “If it’s the Fourth of July weekend we’re going to have a lot higher risk because there are going to be a lot more people at the coast.” If Pyrch could choose the exact time she would have it happen the second week of October on a Tuesday at 3 a.m. “So you’re all at home – but I’m not able to order that,” Pyrch said.

Della Fawcett, the Resilience and Community Preparedness Coordinator for Columbia County Emergency Management organized the event with ASCE sponsoring it.

There will be another screening of OPB’s documentary ‘Unprepared’ on Dec. 15 at Mist-Birkenfeld RFPD main station in Mist at 7 p.m.


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(1) comment


Hey y'all, I think it's about that time, that we have a plan in place, and maybe a reminder to our local folks that earthquakes will happen so get your heads out of the clouds. Let's be ready, instead of a bunch of panicked idiots that think natural things don't happen to them or here. As a community, we will need to rely on each other and our knowledge will put us ahead of the game, Those who know everything, learn nothing, but those who seek knowledge have the making of the minds of a genius god bless

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