OLYMPIA, Wash. - Chances are, you've heard the public service announcements that say "It's up to you to be ready. Get a kit. Make a plan..."
For years, emergency managers have urged people to stockpile enough food, water and supplies to last 72 hours after a disaster. In the Northwest, basic assumptions like that are now under scrutiny, especially when it comes to the risk from a big earthquake. Two committees in Oregon and Washington have been working for more than a year to come up with wide-ranging recommendations to improve the region's disaster resilience.
Now a draft report by Oregon's seismic safety commission says the familiar three day rule is not enough. Panel members Jay Wilson, an emergency manager with Clackamas County, says, "We've got to start talking about not days, but weeks. Two to four weeks is really more reasonable, at least for now."
Wilson acknowledges the right amount of stockpiling is bound to vary by where you live. Generally the closer to the coast, the more you'll need. You could be completely isolated after a big earthquake and tsunami.
Former Cannon Beach mayor and current Oregon seismic safety commission member Jay Raskin described a proposed "resilience rating" system, which could produce an fine tailored local standard for how long to expect to be on your own.
"Another thing about a rating system," says Raskin, "If people don't like the idea that it is going to take two to four weeks in some areas, that gives them an impetus to talk to their elected officials and the legislature and say, 'That's not acceptable. Please, let's reduce this time.'"
In parallel with Oregon, a similar committee of public and private sector experts in Washington has drafted recommendations to increase that state's "resilience." State earthquake and tsunami program manager John Schelling says his group also talked about the 3 days of self-sufficiency standard, but reached no consensus for change.
"As we look at people and communities during this pretty tough economic time, having more than 72 hours (of supplies) is a real challenge for people."
Where Washington and Oregon do align is in prioritizing seismic upgrades to schools and hospitals. Oregon's draft resilience report says 1100 school buildings stand at high or very high risk of collapse in a major earthquake. The comparable number for Washington is unknown. So the very first recommendation in Washington's draft plan is to assess all schools for seismic safety.
"Schools in many ways are the cultural centers of a lot of communities," WIlson says. "If children can't go to school, then they can't go to work. So protecting schools becomes a huge cornerstone of community resiliency."
Both state panels want better tsunami evacuation planning for the coast. The Oregon committee debated whether to recommend no new buildings in areas prone to flooding by tsunamis, but in the end decided to leave those decisions to local government.
Washington's seismic advisory panel wants backup generators installed in more places. At state Emergency Management, John Schelling says several recent storms have reinforced the usefulness of backup power at cellphone towers and gas stations, for example.
"We saw that during the snow storms just this past year," Schelling says. "That is sort of what we would expect to see in a pretty significant earthquake. Communications degrading over time as cell towers lose battery capacity, generator capacity, and the (lack of) ability to refuel those generators."
This points to a dilemma both expert panels faced: whether to mandate greater resilience or just encourage good deeds. In Salem, state Representative Deborah Boone says she prefers not to take a heavy-handed, "top down approach."
"The areas in the state are going to be affected differently. A mandate in one area might work, but we think it is more important to engage the local players and have them do what is more appropriate for their area."
Then there's also the money issue. Take schools. Boone says Oregon simply doesn't have the capacity to issue the 200 million dollars in bonds per year that it would take to fully address seismically vulnerable schools.
The chairman of Washington's resilience initiative says the "hardening" of public and private infrastructure looks more doable if you take it piece by piece over a long period of time.
"I believe that all of this is very doable when you look at it and you put it in the context of needing to be dealt with over a fifty year timeframe," said Stacy Bartoletti, CEO of Degenkolb Engineers. "It's not going to be doable if you say it all has to be done in a very short timeframe."
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