By Don MacGillivray

Earthquakes seem to be the disaster on people’s minds in Oregon. The Big One is overdue and expected in the not too distant future.

If it is a 7.0 on the Richter or greater,there will be much damage and loss of lives. If actions are taken to prepare in advance of the event, much of the damage and suffering might be avoided.

Too many Portland residents live their lives without thinking about disasters. Disasters are inevitable, but little can be done to anticipate them, except for proper preparation.

Other serious disasters can include floods, volcanic eruptions like Mount St. Helen’s, epidemics, terrorism, or a cyber attack. Weather causes frequent small scale disasters such as the extremes of heat and cold, fire, floods, landslides, thunderstorms, lightning, tornadoes, etc. Fire and hazardous material spills are also potentially serious issues.

The public agencies that plan and prepare for these occurrences have excellent educational materials available through local websites and the public would benefit by being informed.

Although the area has been preparing for many years, it’s important to remember that the government responds after the fact and not before.

Through emergency preparedness, our resilience needs much greater attention than it has been given. This should be obvious given other disasters across the United States and around the world in recent years.

With three major hurricanes in the Gulf States and horrendous forest fires here on the West Coast just in the last six months, the bill for these will be $200 billion+ not including billions the government can’t afford.

Energy will be an important factor. Fossil fuels are combustible and therefore fire is a considerable risk. Oil is transported by truck, train and pipeline all which could be disrupted. Ninety percent of Oregon’s oil and gas storage is in NW Portland in old tanks along the river on soils that could liquefy. There is a great chance for a disaster that would cause a long oil shortage.

Electrical lines would be at risk in the local area and outages are almost certain as are disruptions in communications. This happens now during heavy rain, snow, and wind storms at least every few years.

Buildings are another piece of infrastructure likely to be hit hard. While buildings built after the 1990s are be able to withstand an earthquake with limited loss of life, they will take on significant damage that may make them unusable.

The more serious problems are older unreinforced masonry buildings that are generally small commercial and apartment buildings which could be destroyed with unfortunate consequences. About one third of these buildings have received the structural reinforcement that would allow them to withstand an earthquake.

In the past it has been very expensive to do this work, but in the last few years, less expensive  options have become available. Wood structures are much more resilient in an earthquake, but they are at risk of fire.

Equally vulnerable is the physical infrastructure; most importantly roads, airports, rails, bridges and much more. Emergency providers must be able to move to where they are critically needed. Without the freedom of movement, much of the economy would fail to function adequately.

If all the Willlamette River bridges collapse, the west and east sides of Portland will need to function independently. Pedestrians and bicyclists will be using a primary means of transportation until relief is provided.

In the event of a citywide or regional emergency such as a severe winter storm, a flood or a major earthquake, households should be prepared to survive on their own for at least a week.

Ultimately it is people that make Portland what it is. While in a crisis it is the people who will provide heroic efforts to get through whatever happens.

Government will be involved and businesses, while often handicapped, will do much of the heavy lifting as will other local organizations.

Equally important are the many individuals who will find themselves in a position to help those in need in ways that are critical to the preservation of life and property as well as bringing normalcy back to the city over the period of recovery.

In the aftermath of disasters, such as earthquakes, more than 90 percent of persons are typically rescued by their neighbors.

These neighbors are Portland Neighborhood Emergency Team (NET) volunteers, trained by the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management and the Portland Fire and Rescue to provide emergency disaster assistance within their own neighborhoods. NET members are trained to fill service needs until professional responders can arrive.

The NET program has trained many Portland residents to safely protect lives and property in their communities. After a catastrophe such as an earthquake, NET volunteers will conduct search and rescue operations, triage and treat injuries, and shut off compromised utilities. At the end of 2013 there were over 550 active volunteers serving 24 neighborhood meeting locations aka “hubs” here in Portland.

All levels of government are vigilant in their planning and preparation for any contingency and they know what to do. However, there are not resources available to do everything needed when the unexpected levels of damage occur in a disaster.

For example, Portland needs at least one bridge to withstand any earthquake that might befall us. Such an expenditure would be difficult to provide given the many other more immediate societal needs unless the public would be willing to provide the needed funding in a future election.

Perhaps more important is the ongoing organizing necessary to prepare those that will be the first responders to any future crisis. The training of these volunteers is much more cost effective to insure that Portland Is resilient enough to handle whatever the future brings.