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Oregon’s Recipe for Mitigating Earthquakes
Yumei Wang and William Burns

In Oregon, as in other places, many buildings were built before scientists had developed a basic understanding of the regional seismic hazards. Consequently, many critical facilities are dramatically under-designed by today’s building standards with respect to earthquake hazards.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone Fault has had 18 prehistoric earthquakes, the evidence of which is buried in the geologic record. The inevitable future magnitude-9 Cascadia earthquake predicted by past activity and current geology would put thousands of lives at risk.

Oregon is not alone in this problem. Other states and many other countries face similar burdens related to entire communities built using poor seismic design and construction techniques, leaving a legacy of highly vulnerable buildings and infrastructure. Just look at last October’s magnitude-7.6 earthquake in Pakistan, which killed more than 80,000 people, largely due to under-designed infrastructure.

It does not have to be this way, however. Oregon’s recent development of new earthquake safety policies, which include a long-term state-funded grant program to help rehabilitate high-risk public schools and emergency facilities, serves as a good case study for addressing seismic hazards on a community level. Although Oregon’s recent success in public policies relates to earthquake safety, similar approaches could also address issues related to other natural hazards, such as hurricanes, extreme winter storms and landslides.

Roughly three-quarters of the state’s public primary and secondary school buildings were constructed before the first statewide building code in 1974 and before scientific advancement in the field of paleoseismology helped establish even more modern building codes in 1993. In fact, roughly 1,600 school buildings are at risk, including several schools built in the late 1800s that are still in use. In the last few years, however, schools have received a boost through well-coordinated legislation.

In 2001, current Oregon State Senate President Peter Courtney (D) championed the passage of state Senate bills that required that public schools (K-12, community colleges and university buildings with more than 250 occupants) meet life safety standards by 2022, and that emergency facilities (hospitals, fire, emergency operation centers and police stations) meet such standards by 2032.

In the 2002 election, voters easily passed ballot measures that changed the Oregon constitution, allowing for “state general obligation” (G.O.) bonds to pay for earthquake mitigation up to a value of one-fifth of 1 percent of state assets. The bonds are slated to help fund the design and rehabilitation of existing high-risk schools and emergency facilities.

Identifying the many at-risk buildings is not easily accomplished. Furthermore, strengthening the many high-risk buildings can be expensive, challenging engineering-wise, as well as controversial with respect to some community needs. With these issues in mind, Oregonians decided that a workable solution to mitigate the vulnerable buildings would need to last tens of years. The 2022 and 2032 timelines are considered to be a reasonable timeframe to accomplish the task of rehabilitating potentially hundreds of buildings.

Thus by 2002, scientists, policy-makers and Oregon residents had made great strides toward improving earthquake safety. Yet no plans were in place to meet the deadlines set forth in the statute.

In 2004, the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, using funds from a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant, resurrected the momentum of the recently adopted earthquake safety policies. It convened stakeholders to form the G.O. Bond Task Force. The task force concluded that an overarching understanding of the extent of the problem was needed with respect to the safety of students and the vulnerability of emergency facilities that impact community preparedness.

The task force’s plan includes completion of a “statewide needs assessment” by early 2007 for all kindergarten to high schools, community colleges, fire stations, police stations, emergency operation centers and acute-care hospitals. (University buildings were excluded because their needs assessment was previously completed.) It also includes formation of a temporary committee to establish a grant program to distribute earthquake rehabilitation grant funds using state G.O. bond money starting in early 2007. Eligible applicants will be based on the outcome of the statewide needs assessment. Finally, the plan calls for the state to issue G.O. bonds for local authorities and stakeholders to conduct seismic rehabilitation on state-approved high-risk buildings.

Sen. Courtney considered the viewpoints of the G.O. Bond Task Force, stakeholders and citizens, and then crafted the groups’ recommendations into four state Senate bills that passed into law in the 2005-2007 legislature. They will help ensure safer communities over the next several decades.

The laws are designed to form a state grant program to distribute about $1.2 billion of G.O. bond funds for important pre-disaster mitigation activities as identified by the statewide needs assessment. The laws illustrate the state’s commitment to helping protect vital community assets. This passage marks an important transition from planning to action, whereby distribution of grant funds for high-risk critical facilities is slated to begin in 2007 and last for decades.

Creating new public policies, such as Oregon’s recent earthquake safety laws, is often complex and difficult to accomplish. In the end, however, public policies can be extremely effective to moving toward a state’s seismic safety goal, and are thus worth a good pursuit. Oregon’s experience of developing well-supported public policies can be used as a framework for other regions, with applications for both hazard- mitigation and nonhazard-related issues.


Wang and Burns led the G.O. Bond Task Force. Both are in the Geohazards Section of the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries. E-mail: yumei.wang@dogami.state.or.us or bill.burns@dogami.state.or.us.

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