Salem is lucky because we dont have any significant high rises, said Tom Phillips, the building and safety administrator for the city. Low-rise buildings seem to fair better. We seem to have lots of single- and two-story buildings, which all fare well. Most of the structures in the city are framed with wood, which seem resistant in the event of an earthquake. Older, steel buildings tend to fall apart quicker. Wood is flexible. Salem would probably fare very well, other than the downtown area.
In 1996, Salem assessed the earthquake safety of its fire stations. Engineers estimate that $1.2 million would be needed to bring these critical buildings up to appropriate seismic standards and to install backup power generators. Station 7 on Liberty and and Skyline roads would need to be replaced.
The improvements have not been made yet. A bond measure to cover seismic upgrades and other maintenance is being considered for the 2006 ballot.
Its pretty important that these improvements get made, said Salem Deputy Fire Chief Joe Parrott. If we have that earthquake scenario (Cascadia Zone magnitude 9), we know this community is going to be pretty devastated. We need emergency forces out to help folks, and if the (fire station) doors are jammed up or the roof collapses, it is going to delay our response.
Fire engines that are able to get out of stations arent much help, however, if they cant travel the roads and bridges to neighborhoods, hospitals and schools.
The Oregon Department of Transportation changed bridge designs in 1990 to account for subduction zone quakes.
Despite changing designs so quickly after scientists sounded the warning, bridges throughout the state will be unpassable after a quake.
The state maintains about 2,700 bridges local governments maintain an additional 4,000 bridges and since 1990, 400 bridges have been replaced or repaired with updated standards. About 25 bridges per year are upgraded, with a focus on major routes such as Interstate 5 and Highway 101.
The vast majority of bridges were built or repaired prior to 1990, said Bruce Johnson, the transportation departments bridge engineer. Even though we are working as hard as we can to retrofit or replace bridges to make them seismically current, there are over 2,000 that were built before 1990.
Its not just state buildings, emergency facilities and roadways that arent structurally prepared. Its also Oregonians who might be driving those highways, working in those buildings and needing emergency services, experts say.
We dont have catastrophic things happen like hurricanes or flooding every year, said Kresner of the American Red Cross. These things are few and far between, and people get complacent because of that. Not like in Georgia or Florida those people realize that every June to December there is a possibility of a hurricane. Thats another part of the problem: People not taking the threat as seriously as it is.
Sylvia Matsel, 68, is no stranger to disasters.
She lost her home to Hurricane Camille, one of the last great hurricanes to hit the southern United States. Camille killed 143 people and destroyed 6,000 homes.
Matsel and her family evacuated just before the 200 mile-per-hour winds and 20-foot-high tides smashed Mississippis Gulf Coast in August 1969.
When she returned to where her apartment had been, she could salvage just three things: a gold-and-jade bracelet, an aqua cooking pot and a baby book documenting details about her son, Jeffery. Everything else worth saving had washed away with the water.
Although the threat of hurricanes in the South was real to her, the dangers from earthquakes in Oregon is just mildly worrying.
I know that Ive never really heard much about preparing us for an earthquake, she said. I worked for the (Salem-Keizer) school district for 23 years, and we went under the tables for earthquake drills. But other than that, nothing.
Even here at home, Ive thought about what would happen if there was an earthquake. What would I do? she asked. They tell you to stay away from windows, but what would happen to me? And I live here by myself and my little dog, and which room would be the best in an earthquake? I dont know.
Shes not alone. Even people with experience in earthquakes dont have a good understanding of what to do in the event of a quake in Oregon.
Sonya Gaub, 58, lives on the second floor of the Lee Apartments in downtown Salem. She has lived through the shaking and waving of several quakes the most recent here in Oregon.
I stood with (my dog) under the doorway, and I was watching everything wave, Gaub said. Everything looks like the picture is getting distorted. Its a very strange feeling. You can feel the waving motion. You can see it. Even solid objects, like the refrigerator, wave. Its a very strange feeling and it is very hard to think about what to do when it happens.
But she said there are easy ways for government to prepare people, like including emergency information in phone books, where even very poor people can access it.
Its the poor and other vulnerable populations that need help and information the most, experts say.
This happens over and over again in terms of class disparity the working-class and the poor fall between the cracks when big disasters happen, said Wilson, a state emergency planner. The elderly, disabled, people who have mental disabilities, who are on public assistance and the poor. This can apply to recent immigrants who have English as a second language too people in Mississippi (before Hurricane Katrina) who spoke Spanish didnt evacuate because they didnt have the language.
On the other hand, city, county and state officials, emergency planners and public employees train regularly to prepare for disasters, including earthquakes.
At (the Department of Transportation), we try to be as prepared as we can for any kind of hazard with transportation, said Rose Gentry, statewide emergency operations manager for the agency.
The entire state, led by Oregon Emergency Management, practiced response to the exact situation that scientists are most worried about: a magnitude 9 earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone.
All of our (transportation) officers participated, she said. We activated our agency operation center and regional centers, simulated bridge damage and folks went out and reported on the damage. We had that information come in to Salem and made decisions on what to do. And we assisted local government on their transportation and local government issues.
Emergency workers say they want the states infrastructure and residents to be as well prepared as they are.
But the problem with addressing earthquake preparedness is two-fold: Its expensive, and attention to the issue is fleeting.
Big disasters, such as the recent southeast Asia quake and resulting tsunami, scare the public and officials enough for some talk about preparing for a big disaster. But legislators and officials have been hesitant to commit precious funds to an event that doesnt have an exact date.
There was a little bit of talk about being prepared for earthquakes a few years ago (after the Scotts Mills quake in Marion County), Gaub said. About retrofitting buildings, things like that. They never did any of that, and once the aftershock of the earthquake wore off, there was no more mention.
Sen. Courtney said it has been frustrating.
In past sessions, bills passed that required agencies to conduct seismic safety studies, but no money was set aside.
During this years session, Courtney championed a bill that allotted $330,000 for the state geology department to assess the earthquake safety of schools, colleges, police stations, fire stations and hospitals throughout Oregon.
I have been screaming about this thing for three legislative sessions, Courtney said. The public deserves a lot of credit. On the November (2002) ballot with two measures, they said yes, we want at least $1 billion on retrofitting. But we havent even sold a single bond.
The Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries already has assessed large buildings on seven state university campuses. Some buildings, including residential halls at Portland State University and an administration building at the Oregon Institute of Technology, have already been retrofitted to withstand severe shaking.
More funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are being used to fix buildings at Oregon State University and Western Oregon University, where Courtney works as an instructor.
But these are just baby steps, Courtney said.
We are nowhere near ready, he said. We are dangerously on the brink of tragedy in terms of deaths and loss of the Oregon economy. We cant take a magnitude 9 hit today we cant take it at all.
bcasper@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 589-6994
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