Volume XIV | Issue 1 | Spring 2014
The tsunami caused by the Japanese earthquake reached The Port of Brookings Harbor in southern Oregon on March 11, 2011. No one was killed but the harbor sustained $6.7 million in damages.

Did we learn anything?

The earthquakes in Japan and Chile should have been a wake-up call for the Northwest, but experts say we’re far from ready

Recent disasters have underscored the importance of preparation and resilience in a catastrophic event. A lot of that attention came after megaquakes in Chile in 2010 and Japan in 2011. 

Oregonians need to get busy getting ready, says Jay Wilson, a self-described earthquake awareness activist. Wilson, hazard mitigation coordinator for Clackamas County Emergency Management since 2008, says he’s trying to shake the state awake for the coming Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. 

 “Oregon is pretty sleepy when it comes to earthquakes, and it creates a lot of complacency. We haven’t been put in the position of having to deal with these things yet,” he says. “[Oregon] has to look elsewhere for our lesson, and we’re never going to get a better proxy for what we’re looking at than Japan and Chile.”

Yumei Wang, earthquake risk engineer for the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, agrees with Wilson. Japan’s double-whammy earthquake-tsunami is a mirror image of what will happen in a Cascadia event, she says. “It’s an eye opener.” 

Design codes, emergency protocol and countrywide cultures of readiness in both Chile and Japan (with the exception of certain zones, such as the Fukushima nuclear plant) helped those countries return to a semblance of normalcy within weeks.

Japan, which has had earthquakes throughout its history, built better structures and increased its resiliency after World War II, when bombings forced the country to rebuild. Chile’s infrastructure was newer, too, rebuilt after a magnitude 9.5 earthquake in 1960.

No power for weeks

Right now, Oregon’s older infrastructure and ability to spring back from a disaster is in poor shape. A large-scale disaster here would be more like the East Coast after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. “Sandy is a good American analog for why we now recommend people prepare for two to four weeks, rather than just 72 hours,” Wilson says. In some cases, New Jersey residents were without power and other basic services for three to four weeks.

But Wang cautions that the East Coast got something the West Coast won’t: a warning. “Sandy and Katrina had days of warnings. With an earthquake there will not be that warning,” she says. “The warning is really now—now that we know.”

Wang says that everywhere she visits after an earthquake, she hears the same thing: People wished they had been better prepared.  

The Japanese earthquake served as an unfortunate dress rehearsal for the state of Oregon. When the tsunami alert went out after the 2011 earthquake, the Oregon coast was included in the list of areas which possibly could be affected. 

The media reported heavy congestion on the roads as coastal residents headed inland. The Oregon Department of Transportation added extra workers for traffic control and mobilized bridge experts in case they needed to inspect any bridges damaged by the waves. 

Map showing rupture zone along the Cascadia faultRupture zone along the Cascadia fault

The Oregon National Guard issued a standby order for engineers and air crews. The American Red Cross opened shelters in Waldport, Newport and Lincoln City. Limited evacuations took place in most coastal towns.

In the end, the waves did reach Oregon’s shores, causing damage to ports and vessels up and down the Oregon coast. 

The Port of Brookings Harbor was hardest hit, with damage estimated at $6.7 million. Nearly half the port was destroyed, and a number of fishing boats were demolished.

10-year setback

A major earthquake today would set Oregon back 10 years, according to Wilson. And Wang says that the economy could only handle two to four weeks of disruption in basic services before some businesses closed or moved away.

“If there’s a school or bridge the community has to rely on after a disaster, it can’t remain in a tsunami zone,” Wilson says. “Otherwise, it will be obliterated or abandoned. If we wait to fix these things after they break, then you will have lost that capacity when you need it most.”

Chart showing time frames for service recovery under present conditionsTime frames for service recovery under present conditions. Source: The Oregon Resilience Plan

Both experts agree that the state is starting to move in the right direction. It is a slow process, and they say it is impossible to reach Japan’s or Chile’s level of readiness, even if there are 50 years left to prepare. 

Wang says Oregon should have a “Triple 3 Target.” 

That means three days after an earthquake, emergency services such as hospitals, firefighters and police should be back up. 

After three weeks, water, electricity, telecommunications and other basic services should be on in some fashion.

And in three years, repairs and permanent improvements should be completed.

“Right now we are very far from being that ready,” she says. “But we should strive for that.” 

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