The Aftermath of the Big One

Building Damage – Concepcion, Chile 2010

Building Damage – Concepcion, Chile 2010

Collapsed Bridge – Route 5 – Chile 2010

Collapsed Bridge – Route 5 – Chile 2010

Tsunami Building Damage – Japan 2011

Tsunami Building Damage – Japan 2011

Tsunami-Damaged Sea Wall, Geotechnical Engineer Allison Pyrch – Japan 2011

Tsunami-Damaged Sea Wall, Geotechnical Engineer Allison Pyrch – Japan 2011

Investing in “resiliency” now can make the difference between thriving or not recovering at all.

To be resilient is to be able to restore to a strong, healthy, and/or successful state within a short period of time after experiencing misfortune or change. Because many global communities have recently experienced a string of natural disasters, we are now considering how “resiliency” applies to society and our infrastructure and, of course, we’re asking about our own communities in the Pacific Northwest. How will we fare after a major natural disaster?

The Pacific Northwest is reasonably resilient when it comes to storms, flooding, and landslides—all natural occurrences we have dealt with on a regular basis. Our public agencies have well-tested plans to get basic, and then full services up and running within hours or days. However, the current projections for damages due to global warming or earthquakes and tsunamis are not so optimistic. Based on the most current data, the Pacific Northwest is overdue for an 8 to 9 magnitude subduction zone earthquake and the resulting tsunami, much like those that hit Chile in 2010 and Japan in 2011. Based on evaluations recently completed by Oregon and Washington, widespread damage and casualties are anticipated. Deaths due to collapsing unreinforced or under reinforced masonry and concrete structures are anticipated including those in many historic downtown areas, schools, and public buildings. Widespread damage to utilities and infrastructure is also expected.

The resiliency plans passed by both Oregon and Washington legislatures predict these specific things:

  • Utilities—including electricity, water, wastewater, and natural gas services—will be out for months, if not years;
  • Our aging transportation infrastructure (already rated poor under normal conditions) will not perform well during the design seismic event; and
  • Total destruction is anticipated in tsunami inundation areas.

Both reports indicate that as things now stand, the Pacific Northwest is not seismically resilient. Not by a long shot.

Achievable?

Getting to “resilient” is a formidable and expensive task for communities. The Cascadia scenario includes an overwhelming list of damage and problems that seems impossible to solve in a timely way, especially given current funding challenges. However, the scale and complexity of the problem does not allow communities to ignore the problem altogether. The Oregon and Washington resilience plans proposed a timeline of 50 years to significantly increase the region’s sustainability, and have proposed putting seismic resiliency at the forefront of planning for the states. The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) have both started down the path to resiliency.

Having recently completed a large-scale evaluation of their systems, ODOT developed a prioritization plan based on infrastructure quality, the anticipated damage, and public priorities after a Cascadia event. They incorporated this into their overall master improvement plan. As funding becomes available, seismic considerations are now included in design, and repairs and upgrades are completed in a manner that will create large resilient sections of their systems. Further, with their seismic evaluation and agency resilience plan in place, they are in a good position to apply for funding to continue needed upgrades. This model is a good example for other public and private organizations in making resiliency an affordable and attainable goal.

Another idea to consider is how resiliency relates to sustainability. Sustainability has been ingrained in our society and almost every public and private entity generally has a person or position that is responsible for facilitating sustainability. Private and public entities put money into sustainability and it is valued by consumers. But the real question is: Can we be sustainable without being resilient? If a new sustainable building is constructed with the intention of saving additional costs over a 20- to 50-year period (we anticipate the Cascadia earthquake within that time frame) and the structure is not designed to be usable after the quake, can it really be considered sustainable?

The cost of not being resilient deserves serious consideration. If seismic resiliency is not addressed in our long-term planning, our region will not recover from the Cascadia event. Businesses will fail or leave; many residents will also choose to move instead of rebuild; and without the tax base, local agencies will be hard hit and will have trouble rebuilding. The currently booming towns of Seattle and Portland will no longer be destinations for travel or for business.

The path forward—what can we do?

As engineers and scientists who are well educated in the failings of our current infrastructure and our seismic hazard, it is our responsibility to educate the public so that resilience—especially seismic resiliency—becomes a priority. In looking at ways to make resiliency a priority, it is valuable to consider what the resiliency movement can learn from the success of the sustainability push. Engineers, architects, and planners need to find a way to educate the public about seismic risks and to make resiliency something that people understand and are willing to spend money to achieve. When projects are in the planning stages, the additional cost to design the structure for resilience should be factored into the cost analysis. Further, creating a LEED-type rating system for resiliency and seismic safety should be considered. If office buildings, homes, and apartment buildings have resilience or seismic safety ratings, consumers and business owners would start to demand and be willing to pay for the real estate with higher ratings. If a business rents a space that can be used within a week after the expected earthquake, even on emergency systems, it would be significantly more valuable and allow commerce to continue after an emergency.

Statewide resiliency plans, as well as the national push for resiliency after Hurricane Sandy, have brought attention to our lack of resilience as a society. In Oregon and Washington, where the Cascadia event is imminent, resiliency is becoming a more focused goal. Hart Crowser has put together a team to help agencies and private organizations evaluate their resiliency with regard to the Cascadia subduction zone earthquake and tsunami. The team includes an architect, structural engineers, planners, emergency managers, public involvement specialists, and experts in finding funding for projects such as these. We are working with private and public organizations to put proposals together to help evaluate and develop resilience plans on a smaller scale. These plans can be used to apply for funding and be incorporated into master planning initiatives so that resilience becomes a reality.

In addition to this planning, as professionals who are responsible for the design in infrastructure, it is our responsibility to educate the public, as well as our clients, on the risks of not being resilient. A few ways this can be accomplished are:

  • Discussions with public and private clients on the additional cost and benefits of designing new and rehabilitated structures to be resilient beyond code requirements, so that they are resilient beyond the standard life safety requirements of the building codes;
  • Support for legislation and laws that require seismic upgrades and provide funding for resiliency;
  • Support for development of a LEED-like rating system for resiliency of structures and other measures to make “resiliency” the new buzz word in real estate and infrastructure spending; and
  • Education of the public about infrastructure risks and the need to become resilient.
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