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Will Lawmakers Listen to Earthquake Warning?

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FOR DECADES, scientists have warned Oregon is overdue for a catastrophic earthquake that will kill thousands and cripple the economy. With a comprehensive new study working its way toward state lawmakers, we're closer than ever to knowing—as much as we can—all the gruesome details. But will Oregon politicians heed the warning?

On Tuesday, February 5, the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission (OSSPAC) released its findings on the coming disaster. It's the first public glimpse of the Oregon Resilience Plan the group has been drafting for the past year and, as expected, things don't look good.

The scientists, engineers, and analysts that make up OSSPAC estimate that if the expected 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit tomorrow, the state would crumble quickly: Oregon would suffer $30 billion in economic losses, haul away 1 million truckloads of debris, and bury up to 10,000 dead.

Worse still, we'd stay on our backs for a very long time.

The group estimates it could take anywhere from one to three months for electricity to return in the Willamette Valley, from one month to a year before the sewer and drinking water are reliably flowing again, and as long as 18 months before hospitals are running at something like full capacity. And on the coast—where the shaking will be the most intense and where residents will face a tsunami similar to the one that devastated Japan in 2011—life will be nasty and brutish for much, much longer.

OSSPAC says the Oregon Coast could be without electricity for as long as six months. Sewer and drinking water would take up to three years to return to pre-earthquake levels, and hospitals could be running ragged for equally as long.

But, says OSSPAC Chairman Kent Yu, those in power might still have time to set things right.

"This assessment," says Yu, "is based on current conditions if we have the earthquake tomorrow—and certainly we don't want to see that happen—so we need to take some action now."

The first action Yu hopes to see is the Oregon State Legislature adopting his commission's recommendations. The recommendations include seismic upgrades for the state's critical infrastructure—especially roads and other networks used for emergency response. They also entail enticing companies responsible for telecommunications, fuel supply, and electricity—which have been slow to respond to scientists' repeated warnings—to speed things along.

Members of OSSPAC will present the report and their full list of recommendations to lawmakers on February 28.

Once the report's in their hands, lawmakers must decide how much time, energy, and money they're willing to throw at Oregon's long-term survival. But don't expect reform anytime soon. OSSPAC's recommendations don't include proposed legislation, which means new bills that use the commission's doomsday scenario will likely wait until next session, or longer.

How will lawmakers respond to the bad news on their doorstep? Judging from his experience fighting for Portland's recent school bond, OSSPAC consultant Edward Wolf isn't terribly optimistic.

"The natural tendency of a legislature when faced with findings like this one is a deer-in-the-headlights moment," says Wolf, co-founder of Oregon Parents for Quake-Resistant Schools. "They will say, 'That's way too much money, so we'll do nothing.'"

But, Wolf says, Portland's recent support for the school bond gives him some hope. "If that [attitude] extends beyond Portland and is an attitude that is held statewide, then there is probably a lot of support for the steps that need to be taken, more than politicians tend to expect."

Salem has long been lukewarm about backing earthquake preparedness. OSSPAC itself demonstrates this tepidity.

OSSPAC's work on the Oregon Resilience Plan received no direct state funding and was done for free by a group of about 150 mostly volunteer scientists, engineers, state regulators, and citizens. Yu was one of these unpaid mercenaries—he works as an engineer for a Portland architecture firm.

Says Yu: "We can only make the recommendation. We're going to leave it up to them [to act]."

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