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Is Portland Ready For the Big One?

Isabella Blair, Portland, Oregon

Week 12: Sunday, November 25th, 2018

This week in environmental studies we explored the possibility of a high intensity earthquake that would cause disaster for Oregon and specifically, Portland.

We looked at the Oregon Resilience Plan in which the ability of Portland to recover is compared to the amount of time it took Japan and Chile to recover in the 2011 and 2010 earthquakes. Oregon is drastically less prepared. According to their estimates, it would take Portland about 3 months to restore electricity, compared to Japan taking a mere 10 days.

While Portland is not especially vulnerable to Tsunamis, it would still be affected by a large earthquake. We took a look at different building structures and how they respond to earthquakes. Portland is home to many unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs) which happen to be the worst type of building to be in during an earthquake.

If you check out the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management website, you can get to know the URM issue in Portland a bit more. The website states that there are 1650 URMs in Portland, and that on October 10 of this year, the city council voted to require URM buildings to alert tenants of their status as a URM building and to have placards that make this fact obvious.

Photograph by


“Save Portland Buildings” opposes this negative placarding because they do not agree with the way that the city council came to its decision. They see it as a sort of “scarlet letter” that will affect building owners who were not consulted in the deliberation of the council’s decision. They also argue that the database of URM buildings is not fully accurate, as it was compiled by volunteers and not engineers. The city makes no assurance of the accuracy of the list, which solidifies their argument.

This debate exemplifies the importance of proper information dissemination, along with extensive research into who is affected by the issue at hand. The city should not be requiring buildings that “may” be unreinforced to wear a placard that states they are. While having the right motives in mind – informing citizens of the potential danger of entering a building – there was not enough research done to ensure that this would be a fair law. Instead of negative placarding, the city should focus on properly identifying these buildings and how they will be able to reinforce them. Environmental engagement is about investigating all of the possible factors involved in an issue. It is important to explore all of the possible externalities before coming to a conclusion. This is what the city council should have done before coming up with their decision.