PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portlanders live in an area prone to a large earthquake, like the one that rocked Turkey and Syria.
But if an earthquake came to the Rose City, how would the infrastructure hold up? And what’s being done to minimize tragedy?
More than 1600 buildings are lacking the structural integrity that could hold up to a large earthquake. However, it is possible to make upgrades.
The City of Portland, more or less, knows where these buildings are. More than half are one-story buildings, and more than 1400 of them are commercial buildings. Nearly 300 are multifamily buildings.
Emeritus Professor Chris Goldfinger, who studies earthquake geology at Oregon State, says he was at an earthquake conference more than a decade ago in Tohoku, Japan when a magnitude 9 quake hit the area.
The damage from tsunamis in the area was rampant, but Goldfinger noted the damage to structures was minimal. It gave him optimism this problem could be solved, but he says Portland, and most of the Pacific Northwest, is not ready for it.
“I’m afraid the video that’s going to come from Portland when this happens, it might look very much like Syria with building collapses and piles of bricks and people searching just like that. I’m afraid it’s not going to be that different,” he said. “They’re fundamentally very weak and they’re just not constructed to stand up to earthquakes.”
A lot of talk around the Cascade region is about “the big one” — a potential magnitude 9 earthquake, like what happened in Japan. Goldfinger says it won’t even take a quake that strong to cause widespread destruction.
Goldfinger also says Portland started down the right track by looking at which buildings needed to be retrofitted in order to survive a large quake, but lawsuits from property owners stopped that progress.
“This is a task so daunting that it’s hard to imagine, but it’s the only way to prevent the scenes from Cascadia looking just like the scenes from Syria. There’s really no way around that,” he said. “When I look around Portland, it’s hard not to see a massive pile of debris and bricks.”
However, a local supervising structural engineer says retrofitting is an expensive task.
“It is very expensive to go into an existing building and retrofit. It’s probably simpler to build a new building and maybe cheaper in some cases,” said Amit Kumar with the City of Portland.
That’s one of the reasons businesses pushed back against the city in 2019. Since the 90s, Portland has been trying to identify the buildings that are at risk and since then, up to 20% have been at least partially retrofitted.
“The slowness of it is glacial and it’s frustrating for sure,” Goldfinger said.
Time won’t tell when the next earthquake in the area will come, but for Goldfinger and Kumar, it’s never too early to make changes.
“Building safety is really important. These things come up every time there’s an earthquake but it’s something we should have a constant focus on,” Kumar said.