By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Officials plan now for future hard decision

Some 91 city and county officials are participating in the training, aimed at giving them a better idea of what to expect from, and how to plan for, a massive subduction zone earthquake.

The last such earthquake struck the Oregon coast about 300 years ago. On average, they have struck every 530 years, but spans have varied historically from 100 years to 1,000, according to Ian Madin of the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries.

Such a quake would no doubt trigger a tsunami at the coast, and there is no affordable way to make buildings withstand such a force, Madin said. It would be a matter of supporting refugees, either by airlifting them out or airlifting supplies in, as roads through the Coast Range would most likely be impassible.

Studies show the Coast Range has sustained hundreds of landslides from previous subduction zone earthquakes, if not thousands. And a new round would prove very destructive to man’s recent creations.

In the Willamette Valley, the rich soils that make it well-suited to farming also make it vulnerable to liquefaction in the face of the hard, sustained shaking produced by subduction zone quakes, Madin said.

The extent of the damage to buildings and other elements of infrastructure in the valley will depend on how seismic upgrades are carried out in the meantime.

The state did not adopt adequate seismic construction standards until 1994, leaving the majority of its buildings, roads, bridges and other major elements of the infrastructure vulnerable. And he said repairs are all interconnected.

Electricity can’t be restored until roads are repaired, but road repair requires fuel and electricity is needed to pump it. Restoring water service, for everything from fighting fires to supplying drinking water, also takes electricity, he said.

The solution is clear: Upgrade the infrastructure. But it’s a terribly expensive proposition.

Madin said the state has a 300-page assessment of its earthquake vulnerability in place now. It is available on the Oregon Emergency Management website, at

He said a map of site-specific hazards throughout the state can be found at

It’s important to think now about the decisions responders will be forced to make, said Al Lenzini, former deputy director of public works in Oakland, Calif.

Lenzini discussed his city’s experiences with the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1991 Oakland Hills fire. He said they suggest fire departments will have the hardest job during and immediately after a catastrophe.

“You’re going to have fires, hazardous material spills and rescues,” he said. There won’t be enough staff to respond to all of them, and difficult decisions will have to be made.

In Oakland, he said, the city decided to protect the industrial area and let the residential areas burn.

To cover as much ground as possible, Lenzini said, departments need to be cross-trained. Public Works crews can be trained to perform some types of rescues, for example, along with civilian volunteers.

Cities can establish agreements with utility companies for obtaining emergency access to buildings and with contractors for handling work city and county staff will simply no longer be able to perform.

At best, he said, recovery is staggeringly expensive and can take a decade or more.

One of Lenzini’s suggestions was that cities and counties make low-interest loans available for seismic upgrades, particularly with regard to unreinforced masonry buildings prevalent in downtown McMinnville.

“I know money is tight, but I think the political leadership will have to deal with that,” he said.

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