CORVALLIS - It's time for Oregonians to wake up to the earthquake risks of the Pacific Northwest and adopt the regulations and programs of their neighbors to the south if Oregon is to avoid a major catastrophe in its future, says one of the region's leading earthquake experts.
Robert Yeats, a professor emeritus of geology at Oregon State University and author of a new book "Living with Earthquakes in California: A Survivor's Guide," says much of that book provides a blueprint for where Oregon should be in its earthquake preparation, but clearly is not.
"California got its wake up call after a serious earthquake in 1933 destroyed many schools in Los Angeles," Yeats said. "Due to laws passed after that event, California now leads the world in understanding its earthquake risks and preparing for them with it building codes, siting regulations and other programs. The science community here in Oregon now has a pretty good understanding of the risks we face, but the next step will be for the public to demand we do something about it."
The time for people to take actions to protect themselves and to take this issue seriously is now, Yeats said.
Researchers believe that the last great earthquake on the Cascadia subduction zone hit the Pacific Northwest on a wintry night in the year 1700.
The repeat interval of such earthquakes in geologic history has at times been less than 300 years, and an earthquake such as this, at magnitude eight or larger, would now cause a catastrophic level of damage, billions of dollars in property losses and thousands of deaths. And that doesn't even consider the major risks the state faces from crustal earthquakes and shallower faults, some of which run right under the Portland metropolitan areas.
"A lot of our existing public buildings, including schools, hospitals and housing, are simply deathtraps," Yeats said. "For some reason Pacific Northwest residents simply don't think that much about earthquakes, probably because here they are few and far between. But this region is a disaster waiting to happen. If we have asbestos in our schools the law says we have to do something about it. I think earthquakes should have at least that much priority."
The options for action range from personal preparation to new state policy, Yeats said. They include:
Require grading ordinances that not only would help reduce earthquake damage but also guard against soil movements and landslides that cause significant property damage.
"It's simply not right to have public schools and hospitals that will collapse in a great earthquake," Yeats said. "We should either fix them up or get rid of them. That's what has happened in California, and that's the approach we should be taking here in the Pacific Northwest."
The science of understanding, preparing for and even forecasting earthquakes has evolved tremendously in recent decades, Yeats said. Research in the field can and should be increased. But the problem now in the Pacific Northwest is not primarily one of science, it is one of generating the necessary public awareness of these issues and willingness to do something about them, he said.
At OSU, Yeats introduced a course on Pacific Northwest earthquakes that meets the university's "science, technology and society" component of its baccalaureate core. The goal in that course, as in much of the rest of his activities these days, is to raise student and public awareness of earthquake risks and build a consensus to address them, Yeats said.
Along with his latest book, Yeats is also the author of "Living With Earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest." Both publications by the OSU press can be found in local bookstores or purchased on the web at such sites as Amazon.com.
"This problem is not new," Yeats said. "When Californians first realized decades ago they had a serious earthquake concern, their initial reaction was one of denial. They thought if anyone found out about it that it would be bad for business. It took serious disasters before they changed their approach."
"But there's so much more we know now that we simply can't afford to wait any longer in Oregon and Washington," he said. "We've gotten some minor wake-up calls recently with small earthquakes, but there may be another one some day soon in the form of a magnitude nine earthquake that devastates the whole Pacific Northwest. Do we want to wait for our roof to literally fall in before we get ready?"
Click photos to see a full-size version. Right click and save image to download.
Robert Yeats, 541-737-1226