Oh crap! Need a poo plan for the Big One


When the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake hits, unmanaged human waste could lead to widespread illness

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — For decades, researchers have known that the Cascadia Subduction Zone could create a magnitude 9.0 earthquake that would be felt throughout the Pacific Northwest. Much of the research and planning for the aftermath of such an earthquake has focused on the emergency management in the days or weeks immediately after.

It wasn’t until recently that a team of public health and emergency management experts from around the Portland metropolitan area began looking at one key hazard in the months or years after an earthquake: human waste.

After an earthquake, the infrastructure that keeps us away from our own waste could collapse, leaving individuals to handle their own pathogenic feces.

“Often after natural disasters, there’s a second disaster when you’re dealing with human waste,” said Erin O’Connell, an environmental health specialist for Columbia County. “Obviously it’s a need every single person is going to have. Where are you going to go to the bathroom when a major disaster happens and the system is down?”

According to a report published last month in the Journal of Environmental Health, the Portland area could lose wastewater systems for six months to a year after a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake.

O’Connell co-authored the report with Susan Mohnkern of Washington County Public Health, Ken Schlegel of Washington County Emergency Management and Scott Johnson of Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency.

O’Connell said that when Mohnkern initiated the project and began presenting nationwide, the response was, “Oh my gosh, no one is talking about this.”

“It’s just really exciting to be able to start to create this body of work,” O’Connell said. “We’re planning this here, but ultimately this could be helpful in other places.”

The Regional Disaster Preparedness Organization is a group spanning Clackamas, Columbia, Multnomah and Washington counties and Clark County, Washington. A task force formed in 2016 under the RDPO to examine the human waste component.

The task force identified three key methods: using operational septic systems, constructing pit toilets and trench latrines, and using the “twin bucket” system.

The following year, the RDPO carried out a public messaging campaign.

“The Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake will create a regional disaster unlike anything the U.S. has ever experienced,” explained an Emergency Toilet Guidebook created by the RDPO for the public in the first few weeks after an earthquake, available at emergencytoilet.org.

The guidebook outlines three keys to staying healthy: clean water, handwashing, and safe storage of poo.

“It’s kind of gross when you think about it, but it’s about limiting exposure,” O’Connell said.

The task force is now working with jurisdictions to make sure governments are prepared for what to do in the event of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake.

“If we’re messaging people and telling them that they need to do this, how are we working with jurisdictions to put this plan in place?” O’Connell said. “Part of that is trying to look at the different areas and what’s most likely to be the method in that area.”

“After careful evaluation, the no-mix twin bucket system also met the most important elements of the task force’s requirements: hyperlocal, effective, and cheap, with the added benefit of being easy to implement,” the authors wrote in the Journal of Environmental Health.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 News media partner

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