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Bolting Down

Novick Gets Funds for Earthquake Retrofits

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CITY COMMISSIONER Steve Novick took a definitive step this month toward tackling an imminent earthquake disaster.

On Thursday, February 20, Novick and US Representative Earl Blumenauer stood outside a Southeast Portland woman's home and announced a $100,000 pilot project that lets homeowners tap federal money to help finance seismic retrofits of their homes.

These retrofits are a critical issue for many homeowners: Houses built before the mid-1970s—roughly 100,000 in Portland, according to city planners—are probably not attached to their foundations. And in a major quake, like the magnitude 9.0 whopper that scientists warn is coming, they are likely to shake right off.

"I was alarmed to learn in the summer of 2012 that one of our biggest vulnerabilities, when we have a big quake, is homes built before 1974 are unlikely to be bolted to their foundations, and are unlikely to survive," said Novick, who is in charge of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM).

As the Mercury first reported in October, Novick has been playing with the idea of acquiring federal dollars to solve the unbolted-home problem since at least the fall ["Coding for Quakes," News, Oct 16, 2013]. He found an ally in Blumenauer, who acquired funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"If we do our jobs right, we can prevent injuries, deaths, and disruptions to business," Blumenauer said at the program's launch. "This is an opportunity to show that prevention works."

The pilot project, run by the nonprofit Clean Energy Works Oregon, will cover about 75 percent of the price of the retrofits. Bolting a house to its foundation can cost anywhere from $2,500 to $3,500, or more, if work to a home's foundation is needed. Both Blumenauer and Novick have committed to expanding the project past its pilot stage of 30 homeowners, all of whom were chosen by Clean Energy Works on a first-come basis.

"We're talking about 30 homes," said Novick. "We need to get to thousands."

In October, Novick also signaled his intention to tackle a different, stickier seismic issue: unreinforced masonry buildings.

These so-called URMs—too weak and inflexible to withstand strong shaking—are known killers in major quakes. And there are roughly 1,765 in Portland alone, according to the Historic Preservation League of Oregon. But unlike Novick's current pilot project, tackling URMs could mean a fight.

Novick told the Mercury last fall that he hopes to put some regulatory teeth into the city's existing seismic code, which building owners have long circumvented. His and PBEM's plan is to require seismic retrofits for URM owners.

Under the existing code, retrofits are mandatory only under certain circumstances. And, concerned that regulation alone won't be enough, Novick still hopes to sweeten the deal for owners.

The commissioner says he has spoken with Mayor Charlie Hales' staff about using urban renewal funds for seismic retrofits—starting with the city's River District, which covers most of the downtown waterfront from the Morrison Bridge to just past the Fremont Bridge. Hales is working with the Portland Development Commission on the future shape of the city's urban renewal efforts.

"Obviously, it would be nice if building owners would just go ahead and do [seismic retrofits] themselves," Novick told the Mercury. "And there is going to be a regulatory move. But it would be nice if we had some money to help them out."

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