Thursday, April 28, 2016

Earthquake Preparedness in the Pacific Northwest, 21st Century Style: Don't Forget the Data

Most of us who live in the Pacific Northwest have known for a couple decades of the earthquake risk sitting 90 miles off the Pacific coast, the Cascadia subduction zone. Concern reached a fervent pitch last year with the publication of an article in The New Yorker magazine authored by Kathryn Schulz, which was recently awarded a Pulitzer Prize. A follow-on article to the original piece provided good advice concerning planning.

At my family's household, we have always had earthquake insurance, although had never really taken planning seriously. As with many in Portland, the New Yorker article sprung us into action. A first step was to educate ourselves, i.e., what might happen and how can we best prepare. We also wanted to take into account our 21st century lifestyles that include work-related travel as well as a good portion of our lives being digitized.

There are many resources that are available to get one starting thinking and acting on the planning process. The first step is to understand the risk and what may happen. The State of Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, the Cascadia Region Earthquake Workgroup, and others have laid out the risk and likely consequences. While the most devastation will occur along the Oregon coast, the damage in Portland, 50 miles inland from the coast, will still be substantial. The figure below, from the Oregon Resilience Plan, shows the likely effects based on location.

One can quickly find a great deal of information. The State of Oregon also maintains a Web site about earthquakes. The state has also carried out some detailed analyses, The Earthquake Risk Study for Oregon's Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub, and The Oregon Resilience Plan – Cascadia: Oregon’s Greatest Natural Threat. The Cascadia Region Earthquake Workgroup has also published a report, Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquakes: A magnitude 9.0 earthquake scenario.

So how does our family begin planning? I have found the most useful publication to be on the State Web site, Living on Shaky Ground: How to Survive Earthquakes and Tsunamis in Oregon. This report details the planning process, which our family has started to implement. Another report, Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Operations Plan, gives us a sense of planning for the region.

Our first step has been to start stockpiling water, food, and other supplies. Of course, it is impossible know how much of what we will need, what the public emergency response will be, and where we will even be when an earthquake happens. But we have started stockpiling water, canned food, and medical supplies. Our supply of materials are in plastic bins on the side of our house, some of which can be seen in the picture below. We will be adding more over time.

Another concern is how we will communicate and know we are all safe. It is likely that all telecommunications - cell phones, land lines, and Internet - will initially be disabled. Our plan is to migrate toward Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), which is not only where three of the four of us work and attend school, but it likely itself to be an epicenter of recovery activity.

Another important action is to retrofit our house to improve its chances of surviving an earthquake and being able to escape once it starts. Many homes in the Pacific Northwest consist of a concrete slab foundation with a wood-based frame sitting atop it. Most experts recommend a retrofit process that bolts the frame to the foundation. Ironically, we “grandfathered” in on earthquake insurance back in the 1990s and never had to do this to obtain insurance. Many people now have their houses bolted in order to obtain insurance, but we are doing things backward in a sense, bolting the house even though we already have insurance.

There is uncertainty in the value of this procedure, since we will never know up until the onset of an earthquake whether it was a good investment. But it does bring some peace of mind, and even if the house does not remain livable after an earthquake, the added reinforcement will provide a greater chance of being able to escape once an earthquake starts. We recently had this process completed, with about two dozen plates installed that bolt the wood frame of the house to the concrete foundation or walls emanating from it. We also had an emergency shut-off switch installed for our gas line and bolted down our hot-water heater.

Below are some pictures of the bolting process. The first shows the east side of our house, where the upper level sites atop the garage. The garage walls are concrete, and this picture shows the plates above the garage level and before the siding was reinstalled.

The next picture shows the plates on the rear of the house, after the siding was reinstalled. There are no plates over the windows, since this part of the wall lacks strength.

On the west side of our house is a deck, which needed to be partially removed to install plates in that location.

In the area of the garage doors, the plates needed to be installed on the inside.

My work life also impacts my planning. One concern is my travel schedule, which finds me on the road once or twice per month. It is entirely possible an earthquake could happen while I was away from Oregon, which would complicate getting back after it happens. Unfortunately there is little I can do in advance for this possibility.

A final critical activity in this day and age is to preserve my data. I have always been meticulous about backing up my data, especially work data and my large personal photo and video archive. But most of the backup has been local, in particular to external hard disks at home and in my office. These may survive an earthquake, but an added layer of safety is provided by the technology of our time, namely in the cloud.

As we use Box at OHSU for cloud-based storage, I have uploaded all of my work-related data to my account there. This includes archives of data, documents, and teaching materials. My work life will obviously be interrupted in a major way by an earthquake, but preserving my data will at least give me a chance to get restarted at some point.

I also want to preserve what I can of my personal life in the form of photos, videos, and other data. These days I rarely print pictures, preferring to view them on my computer, tablet, or phone. I have purchased a 1-terabyte Dropbox account to handle archiving of all of my personal data.

Clearly a major earthquake will be devastating to my personal and professional life. But by being prepared, I am improving my chances of survival as well as returning to a somewhat normal life after it happens.