Hurricane Sandy's destructive rampage on the East Coast — tens of billions of dollars in damage, dozens dead or injured, massive power outages, transportation disruptions — has reminded Oregonians of a similarly potent peril that periodically awakens their state's coast.
It isn't a superstorm like Sandy that is on their minds. It is a major earthquake such as the one in 1700 that rearranged Oregon's geological features as if they were furniture in a department store showroom. Geologists believe that 13 major quakes and tsunamis have shaken the Northwest over the past 7,500 years.
No one likes to dwell on the prospect of devastating earthquakes and tsunamis comparable to the 9.1 magnitude quake near Indonesia that killed more than 230,000 people in 2004 or the 9.0 magnitude quake that killed more than 15,000 people in Japan in 2011.
Yet it's a possibility that should never be far from the minds of Oregonians, many of whom blithely assume that a behemoth seismic event is unlikely in their lifetimes. Never mind that just off the Northwest coast sits a subduction zone where two tectonic plates collide and stick, creating prime conditions for periodic major earthquakes and tsunamis.
Just last year researchers at Oregon State University issued a report that said the area between Florence and Cape Mendocino, Calif., faces a 40 percent risk of a potential quake of between 8.1 magnitude and 8.3 magnitude in the next 50 years. A larger quake — such as last year's Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan — has a 10 percent chance of occurring, and it would affect a much larger area, including the entire Oregon Coast.
In the wake of Sandy, there are calls for infrastructure improvements to protect East Coast cities from extreme storm surges. Such projects would be hugely expensive — at least $10 billion for the work needed to protect New York Harbor and Lower Manhattan. It's a necessary discussion, especially given the effects of climate change on sea levels and their potential to ratchet up the frequency and intensity of future storms.
But the hard reality is that Oregon isn't adequately prepared for a major quake that is just as likely to wreak havoc on the West Coast as another superstorm is on the East Coast.
A recent survey of Oregon's public schools, most of which were built before seismic codes were adopted, found that more than 1,000 of them rate a high or very high risk of collapse during a strong earthquake. The same survey noted that more than 300,000 children attend schools that have more than a 10 percent chance of collapse, some as high as a 100 percent chance, during a megaquake.
Meanwhile, a 2009 Oregon Department of Transportation study found that a megaquake would shut down major highways across the state, including Interstate 5, because of falling overpasses and other damage. Only a small percentage of Oregon's 2,567 bridges have been retrofitted to withstand a major quake.
In recent years, the federal and state governments have updated West Coast tsunami warning systems, held drills, launched public information programs, bolstered building codes and charted inundation zones and evacuation routes for coastal communities. Reverse 911 systems now enable officials to warn coastal residents about the need to evacuate in the event of a major quake.
But Oregon isn't adequately prepared for a major quake any more than New York City or New Jersey are prepared for the next Sandy. Scientists are right in warning that the Big One will hit, and Oregon needs to do more to prepare.