Alan Sylvestre/OPB

When it comes to preparing for an anticipated Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, Oregon’s most recent immigrants and refugees face unique challenges. New residents from Myanmar, Bhutan, Iraq, Somalia and other countries often arrive expecting Oregon to be a final, safe destination - only to learn about a megaquake that could devastate the region. 

Language barriers, economic obstacles and word-of-mouth rumors have stoked fear in some of Oregon’s newest populations.

Megan Harrington Wilson, family empowerment program coordinator at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, started hearing a lot of chatter after Kathryn Schulz’s article in the New Yorker,The Really Big One,” was published on July 20.

She said that some people in the communities she works with were being told by out-of-state family members to get out of Oregon. In general, information about the earthquake was traveling through informal channels and became less accurate the further it spread.

“There were rumors saying, ‘Oh, it’s going to be either this Wednesday or next Wednesday,’” Harrington Wilson told Think Out Loud guest host Geoff Norcross on Monday. “People were talking about, ‘Well, maybe we can move away for a couple of months and move back after the earthquake.’ There was a real misconception about the timing and probability that led to a lot of short-term disaster thinking that was not necessarily helpful to families.”

Surya Joshi, a family engagement specialist who works with Nepali-speaking Bhutanese communities, said that by the time he heard about how quickly word had spread, fellow members of the Bhutanese community were already planning to leave.

“People were already planning to leave before we discovered that this had gone viral in the community,” Joshi said. “They came here just to be safe, and now there are these rumors that spread so quickly.”

Recent immigrants and refugees in Oregon bring different backgrounds and experiences that shape their individual reactions to a potential earthquake.

Rasha Al Manni came to Beaverton from Baghdad, Iraq, one year ago, and learned about the risk of a Cascadia earthquake on Facebook.

“In the beginning, when I heard about this issue, I was very afraid for my family,” Al Manni said, speaking with Arabic translation help from her husband, Ahmed Ali. “Even for two days, three days, I couldn’t sleep at night.”

For Al Manni, moving from a war zone to a possible natural disaster area also means that she already has some idea of the supplies she should keep in her home. But for her and many other people living in smaller housing, there may not be space to keep large amounts of food and water.

“Because we come from a war zone, we know some stuff. For example, you should always keep dried food, and water, and some first aid kit for medication. Because we always have war, we always keep food in our storage,” she said. “But here, we couldn’t find space in our apartment to keep all this food.”

Harrington Wilson said that Al Manni’s story is a “relatively typical” one, adding that the Iraqi community in Portland has had an easier time organizing amongst themselves and communicating accurate information.

By contrast, people who migrated to Oregon from rural areas with little to no formal education may need more help with assessing the risks. Joshi pointed out that one fear among the Bhutanese community was the threat of a tsunami enveloping the city of Portland.

“A lot of these community members haven’t experienced tsunamis, especially Bhutanese, who haven’t seen the ocean before coming to the U.S. So for them, all of this water coming to their place is really scary,” Joshi said.

The Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization responded by holding meetings with Bhutanese and Burmese communities, even though disaster preparedness lies outside the group’s typical responsibilities.

A hundred Burmese families attended the meeting for that community, and 48 Bhutanese families attended that meeting.

One point of emphasis was the actual probability of an earthquake. “It could be tomorrow, or it could be a hundred years from now,” Harrington Wilson said.

Joshi and Harrington Wilson both stressed that this kind of community engagement is crucial if the earthquake hits soon. Emergency preparedness workshops also need to fit the needs of their audiences; for lower-income immigrants and refugees struggling to put food on the table, emphasizing the need to stock up on supplies may do more harm than good.

For her part, Al Manni said while she fears for her children if an earthquake strikes, she also feels exhausted thinking about it, and tries to forget it when she can.

“I feel tired about this, and I try to forget it, and I live my day,” she said.