How to survive an earthquake (of hysteria)

“The big one” will certainly be very bad.  Our actions beforehand could be worse.

A modern building whose upper floors “pancaked” in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. Historic “unreinforced masonry” buildings are hardly the only ones at risk from a major seismic event.

Something terrible is going to happen in the Northwest, including Portland.  FEMA estimates that some thirteen thousand people could die – many more than the two thousand in Hurricane Katrina.  The aftermath could leave our region similarly stranded and transformed beyond recognition.

This event — a major earthquake — could happen tomorrow, or it could happen in 400 years, or at any point beforehand.  Prudence suggests that we take reasonable steps to be prepared.

For some, that means demolishing — or performing huge expensive seismic upgrades — to thousands of buildings, many of them low-rise historic structures.  If they are demolished, they will have to be replaced with new buildings.

It’s enough to make some architects salivate.

But for just about everyone else, it’s hysteria of the worst sort.   Of course deliberate steps need to be taken — especially around preparedness.  What should people do before, during and after the event?  What is the safest place to be during the event, and the safest way out of a building after the event?  How can the worst effects of such an event be mitigated?  What are the most dangerous structures – typically unreinforced mid-rise buildings, or buildings with poorly reinforced  concrete roofs and floors that are likely to “pancake” — and how can we take steps to retrofit them?

We need to understand the risks, just as we understand any risk in life.  We buy life insurance, and companies are willing to sell it to us, because it’s possible to accurately quantify the risk of a person dying in any one year.  Many people pay perhaps hundreds of dollars a year each into a pool, from which a few people are paid millions of dollars much less frequently — and the companies are able to accurately quantify the risks and stay in business.

What’s the probability of “the big one” in the next 50 years?  A recent study put the maximum at as much as 20% — meaning there is an 80% probability that it will NOT happen in the next 50 years.

By contrast, at current levels we already kill about one person per day on Oregon roads.  At that rate, in the same 50 years we WILL kill over 18,000 — in other words, more than “the big one,” whose probability of occurrence in the same time interval is much lower.

Yet we don’t stop people from driving.  We take all reasonable measures — traffic safety, air bags, and so on — and we accept the risk.   We see it as a price we pay for the benefits of mobility.

Right now we have many thousands of beautiful, historic, affordable homes, apartments and other buildings, many of which are low-rise.  (They include the classic “courtyard apartments” where many Portland residents live, including this author’s own residence.)  These buildings often have wood-frame cores and exterior masonry walls.  The exteriors could indeed slough off, but the entire structures are unlikely to collapse.  Those who take shelter in their central hallways, and then exit as soon as practical and safe, will likely survive.

Should we require all of the owners of these buildings to perform very expensive seismic upgrades in a short period of time?  Will we trigger a wave of demolitions of some of our most affordable, beautiful, enduring — sustainable —  structures, replaced by many more and (let’s face it) uglier buildings?  (Sorry, architects – but our professional win-loss score nowadays is there for all to see.)

Is that smart?  Well, it’s profitable for some — and that’s a dangerous distortional force on good judgment, and the best interests of our city.

For more on this, the Northwest Examiner has an extensive article this month:

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