Four years ago, on March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake hit northeastern Japan.  It unleashed a tsunami that savaged the country.  Around 16,000 people died, and the material damage is estimated to have been about $300 billion.

The disaster caught the attention of people worldwide, and especially here in the Northwest. Oregon’s coastline is similar to Japan’s, and many wonder if we would suffer the same fate if a full-rip earthquake and tsunami hit here.

Allison Pyrch, Senior Project Geotechnical Engineer for Hart Crowser. 

Allison Pyrch, Senior Project Geotechnical Engineer for Hart Crowser. 

Alan Sylvestre/OPB

Allison Pyrch was among a handful of Oregonians who visited Japan shortly after the disaster. She’s a geotechnical engineer with the firm Hart Crowser, and she joined OPB’s Geoff Norcross to discuss what she learned.

Q&A with geotechnical engineer Allison Pyrch

Geoff Norcross: You were in Japan six weeks after the earthquake and tsunami. What exactly were you looking for?

Allison Pyrch: We traveled with a team that looked at lifelines, so we looked at electrical systems, water and wastewater systems, communication, transportation, all forms: ports airports, bridges and roads. Basically all the things you need for life to be as comfortable as we know it.

Norcross: And what did you see?

Pyrch: They did really well. The tsunami areas, of course, were devastated. There’s not a whole lot you can do against the force of a tsunami. But in terms of shaking damage, they had pretty minimal shaking damage for an earthquake that large. That’s something that you can better engineer for and prepare for. So most of their structures made it through the earthquake such that people survived in the buildings. They could use the bridges to get out of the tsunami zones. You want your structures even in the tsunami zone to withstand the shaking damage such that you can actually get out of the tsunami zone.

Norcross: Let’s bring this home. How do Oregon and Japan compare when it comes to preparing for something like this?

Pyrch: I don’t think there’s much of a comparison. Japan has been designing for this for hundreds of years. The shaking levels that our infrastructure has been designed for is really only current from the 90s. Anything built before that hasn’t been designed for this earthquake.

On a different level, Japan has an earthquake culture, and just an overall general preparedness culture. They live on an island that is hit by typhoons and tsunamis and earthquakes all the time. Everyone has hard hats and vests in their houses, in their cars. They do drills all the time. They’re really good at this. On the Oregon side, we’ve got several cultures. We have sustainability cultures and camping cultures. We do not have an earthquake culture here.  I think there’s a lot of people who don’t understand our risk, and don’t understand how unprepared we are from an infrastructure standpoint.

Norcross: Hanging over all of this is a shadow, and that is the next big Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, which geologists tell us is going to happen. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Do you see any sense that that gathering knowledge about this threat is driving any of the process at all?

Pyrch: I think there’s been a lot more urgency. Number one, the data gets better every year. They keep trying to disprove this, and they keep coming back and saying, “Nope, actually we were right, and it’s probably worse than we thought.” There is no doubt that this is coming.

I do think this Japan earthquake, as much as it was a horrible disaster and you don’t want it to happen to anybody, I think Oregon really needs to take away that it happened at 2 p.m. in a camera-happy country so that we can see what happened, and we can look to see that you can actually survive one of these things and work to get as good as they were.

Norcross: Why do you care about this?

Pyrch: I live here. I’ve lived here my whole life.  This is my town and my state.  We vacationed on the coast.  I live in Portland.  I’m an engineer that designs for this all the time.

Honestly, it’s going to suck after this earthquake. It’s not going to be fun at all to live here. Our economy is going to take a huge hit. There’s a lot of people that are going to move away. We’re not going to be the Portlandia anymore, we’re going to be the after-Katrina example. I would prefer to have my state stay the way it is, and be as beautiful and wonderful afterwards, and a fun place to live. And we’re not there yet.