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2015 Marks Banner Year For Earthquake Preparedness In Oregon


You know legislators are serious about something when they appoint a czar like a drug czar. Well now, Oregon has the equivalent of its own earthquake czar.

 Jay Wilson, the chair of the Oregon Seismic Safety Commission, says the new Oregon’s earthquake resiliency officer will coordinate how state agencies prepare.

 Jay Wilson, the chair of the Oregon Seismic Safety Commission, says the new Oregon’s earthquake resiliency officer will coordinate how state agencies prepare.

Alan Sylvestre/OPB

The less sexy title is “Oregon’s earthquake resiliency officer.” But Jay Wilson, the chair of the Oregon Seismic Safety Commission, says the job will be to coordinate what state agencies do to prepare.

“We just really felt like this needed to come from an executive level position, rather than it being tied to one agency and the limited authority of a single agency,” he says.

So, if step one is to have an earthquake czar, step two is come up with the money.

This session, lawmakers said they’re ready to spend $300 million dollars to prepare for the big one — the largest chunk of change the state’s ever put into earthquake-proofing public buildings.

“This was a really big break-through for the seismic rehabilitation grant program,” Wilson says.

Some $175 million will be disbursed as grants to earthquake-proof schools. The remaining $125 million will match money that school districts put forward when they pass bond measures.

Ted Wolf was on the state’s school capital improvement task force and says the money will really boost earthquake preparedness.

“And it will do much more,” he says. “It will help modernize schools, it will help school districts rebuild schools that are old and obsolete. It will help make safety technology and teaching improvements throughout schools in many different districts.”

One of the more interesting bills to pass, removes a legal hurdle to earthquake preparedness.

Companies that store fuel or toxic chemicals have been reluctant to commission studies to find out how vulnerable they are. That’s because of the concern they would then be held legally liable if they don’t fix problems once they’ve been documented by such studies.

Ian Madin with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, said Senate Bill 775 is intended to safeguard these companies. It does not allow these so-called vulnerability assessments to be admissible in court to prove negligence.

“This is to try to give them a little more comfort in moving ahead with those kinds of vulnerability assessments,” he says. “I mean that’s really the crucial first step, you’ve got to find out how bad the situation is, before you can even begin to design a response.”

The Legislature also approved Senate Bill 85, which makes it easier for local governments to loan money to businesses for seismic rehab projects. The bill was meant to help  Portland come up with a way for owners of un-reinforced masonry buildings to make them safer, Madin says.

“There’s upwards of 1,500 of these buildings within the city so it really is a pretty large population,” he says.

Not all of this session’s earthquake bills  passed this session.

Lawmakers decided against earthquake-proofing the Capitol building. Speaking at one of the last committee meetings of the session, Senate President Peter Courtney called it a devastating loss.

“Over the last 25 years geologists and seismologists and geotechnical engineers have told us in the planes possible terms that a major earthquake is coming and we are not prepared,” he says.  “They have told us over and over that the Capitol is unstable and she will collapse.”

Lawmakers also decided against setting up a task force to look at the best ways to help people after a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake.

Wilson says that kind of planning will be crucial for dealing with a quake big enough to force thousands out of their homes and create mass casualties.

“We just don’t have any capacity to deal with that, if it happened right now,” he says.

Geologists estimate there’s a 37 percent chance of a magnitude eight quake or larger along the Cascadia Subduction Zone within the next 50 years.

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