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Agencies put lives at risk with earthquake policy

Is the goal of a couple of governmental agencies to keep earthquake messaging as simple as possible worth your life, or the lives of your family, neighbors, or co-workers?

A powerful new technology called ShakeAlert, now in use in California and soon to be rolled out in Oregon and Washington, could dramatically increase your chances of living through the inevitability of a massive Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. This life-saving new technology is an alert system that can provide seconds to minutes of warning before an earthquake’s destructive shaking arrives. With ShakeAlert, unless you have the misfortune of being very close to an earthquake’s epicenter, no longer will the first sign of a deadly seismic event be the earth convulsing beneath you.

Unfortunately, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and Oregon’s own Office of Emergency Management (OEM), have appeared to rely on a remarkable display of group think and past-the-graveyard whistling in their insistence on the venerable Drop, Cover, and Hold On (DCHO) as our single, one-size-fits-all protective action. While DCHO will continue to be a valuable earthquake survival strategy, ShakeAlert means it is no longer the best one in all circumstances.

In putting all their eggs in the DCHO basket, OEM and USGS are not only ignoring ShakeAlert’s most important feature — the advance warning of shaking — but are also discounting the age and condition of much of our built environment. It is, apparently, acceptable collateral damage that some of us are guaranteed to die should we find ourselves in an older, unimproved building and dutifully follow their DCHO directive. We do not agree.

In California, because of the state’s crowded seismic profile, there may be very little notice to residents that they are about to experience tremors. Because of this, and because California has been active in developing more seismically robust building codes and investing in retrofitting buildings, DCHO as their official protective action makes more sense. Oregon, however, unlike California and, to a lesser extent, Washington, has few active surface faults. While the potential does exist for relatively strong crustal earthquakes within the state and from earthquakes located just over the Washington and California borders, the single greatest seismic threat to the majority of Oregonians is the 600-mile long Cascadia Subduction Zone. There have been 41 Cascadia events of 8.2 magnitude or greater over the last 10,000 years, and we are now overdue for the 42nd.

With ShakeAlert’s ability to provide warning times in Oregon of as much as 3 minutes (depending on how the next Cascadia earthquake unfolds), evacuation from many of our older, unimproved buildings could provide a clear safety advantage over DCHO. In areas where evacuation from a structurally unsafe building is not feasible, and funding is not available for a full seismic retrofit, other concepts, such as creating a reinforced sheltered area within the building, should be considered. New technologies should spark new ideas.

To Oregon’s detriment, officials from USGS and OEM have discounted repeated urgings from us and others within the ShakeAlert process to consider more creative, multi-faceted solutions. They are fixated on their simple, consistent message, convinced that people under stress are incapable of understanding or acting upon anything more. For those of us who are aware of how many Oregonians live and work in structurally vulnerable buildings, this is simply unacceptable.

During the recent special legislative session, $7.5 million in funding to complete the ShakeAlert system was passed. We applaud that decision. Unfortunately, the protection our legislators believe they were guaranteeing with that funding will fall short of expectations should OEM not change its rigid position on acceptable protective actions, and should local authorities and school districts be prevented from using their on-the-ground realities to determine which mix of protective actions are most appropriate and most likely to save lives.

There is, in fact, a statute (ORS 336.017 2(b)) that affords school districts the flexibility to drill students in evacuation should it be determined that evacuation would best “prevent or limit injury or loss of life.” While we believe that provision should be enough to force USGS and OEM to relent on their DCHO mandate with schools, our position is that all lives matter, and that all Oregonians should be able to take advantage of the protective action that could best prevent or limit injury or loss of life.

Oregonians will die in the upcoming Cascadia event. It is unavoidable. What we can and should do is minimize that eventual toll by opening ourselves up to multiple strategies to deal with the intersection of our seismic threat and built environment. We may not be able to prevent the next Cascadia event, but we can and should dedicate ourselves to reducing the tragedy it will unleash on our state and its citizens.

Michael Cavallaro is executive director of the Rogue Valley Council of Governments. Eric Dittmer is professor emeritus of geology and environmental sciences at Southern Oregon University. This opinion was also signed by Paul Jewell, Beaverton School District emergency coordinator, and Larry Masterman, MICP, CEM, commissioner with the International Association of Emergency Managers.