Decisions made by Oregon lawmakers this legislative session have undercut efforts to prepare for and respond to a massive earthquake expected to hit the Northwest in the next 50 years.
With earthquakes hitting along the California coast with increasing magnitude and frequency, concerns about how to prepare for the “Big One” are growing, and researchers in Oregon are working to get ahead of it.
But by now allowing schools and hospitals in tsunami zones, failing to provide additional funding for an earthquake alert system and putting the state agency that tracks these disasters on the chopping block, lawmakers may have formed the perfect storm.
State agency for natural hazards at risk
The fate of the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries — which tracks and provides support to cities for geological hazards such as earthquakes and tsunamis — is up in the air after lawmakers essentially placed the department on probation for a year.
The department was scrutinized this session for overspending its general fund appropriation for the second time in the last four years.
It needed major fund adjustments, including a $650,000 increase in general funds this year to support operations and “backfill overspending,” according to a recommendation from John Terpening in the Legislative Fiscal Office.
The overspending was due to the department “inadequately tracking existing projects and grants, projects being under charged for work performed and/or exceeding the original scope without budgetary modifications,” Terpening wrote. Some project revenues also came in at less than half what was expected.
Because of this, lawmakers approved a budget of just over $8 million for the department, which will only fund it for one year. This came with the caveat that the department eliminate three natural resource specialist positions and two vacant positions. The state also required the department add two new positions and reclassify one with the purpose of financial oversight.
In 2020, Gov. Kate Brown’s office will evaluate the department’s spending and work to see if it should continue to exist as an independent agency, or if it should be “abolished” with the programs moved to other entities.
The department, known as DOGAMI, is the only entity in the state that provides this level of geologic and hazards mapping, said Bob Houston, the department’s legislative coordinator.
“There are a lot of unknowns. It would be devastating to staff,” he said. “Of course, it’s very stressful through this time as you would expect.”
The natural resource specialist positions that were cut are involved in every step of the agency’s geological survey program from mapping out the hazards to allocating grants.
The department has not yet received word which of those specialists will be laid off, so Houston said it’s unclear which areas would have fewer resources. It’s also unclear where the program’s mapping hazards such as earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis and volcano activity would be dispersed to if the department is dissolved.
“If DOGAMI was dissolved, it would be incredibly disruptive to staff, and it is likely that some ongoing studies would be discontinued,” said Director Brad Avy. “Oregon would lose a valued agency and may lose talented staff in our geologic survey and services program, which provides a focus on geology and mineral mapping and natural hazards identification.”
Oregon’s earthquake alert system hits delay
When Southern California experienced a 6.4 magnitude earthquake over Fourth of July weekend, the U.S. Geological Survey knew it was coming 48 seconds before it hit because of the ShakeAlert seismic network.
That’s enough time to take cover, shut down bridges or prepare emergency responders.
ShakeAlert is an early warning system being developed by the USGS and other seismic researchers in the West to detect earthquakes and give advance notice of them. The alert system was rolled out publicly in L.A. County this year through an app and gives notification to residents for earthquakes of 5.0-plus magnitudes.
University of Oregon researchers have been involved in trying to get the system built out enough in Oregon so it can follow California with being fully operational and for public use as soon as possible. But now, with the loss of $12 million proposed for systems such as ShakeAlert this session, Oregon could lose out on a more robust system or see delays.
“The state funding was simply to build the ShakeAlert seismic sensor network out as fast as possible and do it in a couple years,” said Leland O’Driscoll, ShakeAlert project manager and a seismic field technician at the UO.
“It won’t be quite as robust of a system as it would have been with the state funding,” he said. “You can get away with the minimal installation (of sensors), or you can build a fully robust, resilient network that could write out (information about) big earthquakes and survive bigger events.”
ShakeAlert is live in Oregon and being piloted by some agencies such as Eugene Water and Electric Board. Linfield College is one, according to Yumei Wang, a resilience engineer with DOGAMI. The department has partnered with ShakeAlert to build out the seismic network.
“(Linfield) would use the system to automatically unlock doors, so people could get in and out in the event of an earthquake,” Wang said. “Every single pilot project owner will decide what they want to use the information for.”
Some entities like the Eugene water board use the system as-is to warn workers who may be in compromising positions, such as down in a manhole or up on a pole, or to shut down equipment such as water pumps .
“Earthquake safety is really important because we have so many buildings and infrastructure in the state of Oregon that have seismic vulnerabilities,” Wang said. “We’re very excited about the fact that there’s this new technology that’s being developed and will soon be able to be used for earthquake safety.”
But it may not be available to the public now for some time.
Brown originally declared wanting the system in place by 2023 in her preparedness policy, “Resiliency 2025.” The future of Oregon’s ShakeAlert isn’t dead because it still receives federal funding, but O’Driscoll said that with the lack of state funding it would now take “much longer” to reach the end goal.
When the funding was still in play, O’Driscoll said it looked more likely that the public notification system would be available early, in 2021. Now, he projects it being ready closer to 2022 or later.
Building that seismic sensor network out is crucial to getting to a point where the system can be used for public notification in Oregon as it is in L.A. because more sensors can discover faults underground that may not have been previously known.
“If you only have one or two sensors in a 100-mile radius, it’s hard to get the magnitude right,” he said. “Now if you have 10 sensors around there you can get a really good answer.”
In California, earthquake impact is much more top-of-mind and has been for decades.
“With those sort of constant reminders there’s heavy earthquake risk in the region, that’s led the state to develop an earthquake country alliance, really lean on insurance for earthquakes and really have a very active and strong outreach, education and policy campaign,” O’Driscoll said. “That’s really all to say, we really don’t have that in Oregon.”
New tsunami zoning law makes waves nationally
In late June, the governor signed House Bill 3309, which amended previous law to no longer prohibit the construction of buildings such as hospitals, schools and other emergency-preparedness centers in tsunami inundation zones along the coast.
The bill had bipartisan support and bucked standards held for nearly 25 years keeping those critical facilities out of harm’s way should a massive tsunami hit. The change also drew national attention for its timing.
For some coastal cities like Florence in Lane County, this amendment from the state won’t change its city planning.
“We actually adopted a lot of the prohibitions that were in place in that previous version of (the state law) as part of our city codes,” said Glen Southerland, associate planner for the city of Florence. “And now our city code actually prohibits most of these things unless there’s justification through the actual ‘beat the wave’ evacuation maps.”
Until recently, the city didn’t have a prohibition of building in tsunami zones written into its code because that was already outlined in state law, he said. But with the change on the horizon, the city adopted it.
The motivation for the change on the state level was in part to promote economic development in coastal cities and increase property values by having these essential facilities nearby, according to some lawmakers. Some also noted there’s an ability to rebuild should a tsunami hit.
Southerland said these reasons were not of concern for his city because Florence has ample high ground and enough space to build facilities outside of tsunami zones as it is.
“Florence is pretty lucky in that everything except for the extreme northern areas of Heceta Beach can be evacuated pretty easily in the event of an earthquake or tsunami,” he said. “Because we’re mostly located off of the coast, the tsunami would have to travel over land and up river, which gives us a bit more time.
“I know that a lot of other communities have had issues finding locations that are out of those zones and financing funding for public buildings,” he said.
But it was still possible to build in tsunami zones under the previous law, as it specified that building those facilities was banned unless the city came to DOGAMI and asked for an exception. Though, there wasn’t much demand, according to Houston.
“In the 25 years since the bill had been in law, nobody had come for an exclusion,” Houston with DOGAMI said. “Nobody has ever requested that. (But) we have had 13 consultations of buildings constructed in that zone.”
For towns like Florence that have reestablished the building prohibitions on their own, the larger impact to the area would come if DOGAMI was dissolved next year. The state agency works closely with small, coastal cities such as Florence to develop tsunami evacuation routes and maps, signage and crucial details should there be a disaster.
“They provide a lot of grants for tsunami evacuation signage, which we did not have a lot of previously,” Southerland said.
The department has recently provided grants for pole signs directing people away from the tsunami zones, “You Are Here” signs that outline evacuation routes from that point and the “blue line” project that involves painting a bright blue line across lanes of traffic to show the edge of a tsunami zone.
“The majority of what they do is the technical work — figuring out when those waves are going to hit, how high those waves could possibly be, the geology aspects of … landslides,” Southerland said.
“A number of different things that, as a small city, we really would not have the capacity to ever do. Even larger cities on the coast probably don’t have the expertise or ability to spend (money) to hire consultants for that. So they really serve a valuable purpose for us in that regard and the actual implementation of that information.”