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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Broken News
Disasters, Shaky Ground
by Chris Lydgate
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If it wasn't obvious before the Ash Wednesday quake, it is now: The real question is not "if" but "when."
     State seismic experts reckon there is a 10 percent chance that a cataclysmic quake (magnitude 8 or higher on the Richter scale) will strike the Cascadia Subduction Zone in any given 50-year period.
     Even a much smaller temblor could take a toll. If it struck the Portland Hills Fault, a quake of magnitude 6.5 (far gentler than the Ash Wednesday quake) would probably kill 2,000 to 3,000 people and cause billions of dollars in property damage, according to seismologist Franz Rad, Chairman of the Civil Engineering Department at PSU.
      It's well known that the biggest potential threat to human life in a Rose City quake comes from the city's 1,800 unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings--prewar brick-and-mortar structures. "Unreinforced masonry buildings are hands-down the worst hazards in an earthquake--unless they've been upgraded," says Mike Hagerty, chief engineer of the city's Office of Planning and Development Review. PSU engineers reckon that a 6.5 quake would leave more than half the county's URM buildings with moderate or extensive damage and dozens of buildings in complete rubble.
      Yet people who work and live in those buildings have no way to gauge their danger. That's because the city imposes no requirement on building owners to inform occupants about potential earthquake hazards. In fact, the city hasn't even identified high-risk buildings--although other entities, from the city of San Francisco to the Portland Public School District, have demonstrated that such an analysis is feasible.
      During the past three weeks, WW has been reviewing a list of all the city's URM buildings, obtained through a public-records request. We also dug through several dozen seismic analyses buried in bureaucratic file cabinets.
      We found that although there is widespread agreement that many Portland buildings pose a potential hazard, there is marked reluctance--on the part of engineers, bureaucrats and emergency planners--to identify specific examples.
     One obstacle is technical. Seismology is a notoriously uncertain science, and predicting the damage to any particular building especially so. Many variables come into play: the magnitude and duration of the quake, the soil, the design and construction of the building, how well it has been maintained and its age. One building may escape unscathed, while its next-door neighbor, despite similar construction, may collapse.
      The suggestion that potential hazards be publicly identified sends the building-owners lobby into a shudder of dismay. "We do not support the idea of putting stickers on buildings," says Robin White, executive vice president of the Building and Office Management Association. "It would mislead people more than give them real information." Nonetheless, other cities have taken a more aggressive stance. In 1986, San Francisco mandated that its 2,068 URMs undergo seismic upgrade by 2006. So far, two-thirds have been completely or partially retrofitted.
     In order to illustrate the scope and magnitude of the problem, WW has selected seven structures from the long list of those that may pose a hazard to their occupants in case of a major quake.

2524 SE Clinton St.
Built 1913
Floors: 2

Portland wouldn't be the same without the Clinton Street Theater, epicenter of the cinematic revolution for at least 20 years (or as long as it's been screening The Rocky Horror Picture Show.) But based on its unreinforced masonry, age, poor condition, vertical irregularities and non-structural falling hazards, if the unimaginable occurs, the Clinton Street could stage a rocky horror of its own. Besides the theater, the building houses a salon, a bar, a vintage clothing store and 10 apartments. "We don't know the nature and extent of the problems at the Clinton Street Theater," says owner Dick Helzer, a Beaverton lawyer. "We're afraid the necessary work would mean demolishing the building. But it's stood up for 100 years. How much more assurance can you get?"

(I live in apartment #3...til next month!)

1021 SW 4th Ave.
Built 1911
Floors: 8 + basement

Cops and crooks, judges and jurors, lawyers and litigants: The courthouse is the Portland legal world's ground zero--in more ways than one. According to a seismic analysis performed in 1991, the building's walls are incapable of standing up to a major earthquake. "Building collapse then becomes a likely event," the report states. "The lateral strength of the [courthouse] is far less than appropriate for all except the smallest earthquakes."
     Roughly 2,000 to 5,000 people enter the courthouse on a typical weekday. "It's a tremendous liability if an earthquake were to occur," says engineer Dan Brown, the county's director of facilities and property management. Retrofitting the building would cost about $40 million. So far, the county has failed to come up with the money.

Southeast 26th Ave and Powell Blvd
Built: 1926
Floors: 3

Over the years, thousands of Portlanders have paid their dues at Cleveland. Few of them realize their alma mater is rated as "high structural seismic risk." In fact, out of hundreds of buildings in the Portland Public School system, Cleveland is currently rated as posing the highest risk to the largest number of students, teachers and administrators. According to a seismic analysis performed in 1998, the school's original building--which includes classrooms, the auditorium and the old gymnasium--can withstand only 1 percent of the expected forces in a major quake. "Our top priority is getting the students out safely," says Pam Brown of the Portland Public School District. Cleveland is slated for a retrofit this summer.

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