It’s a big Deal! That’s what a 2nd grader shouted when the assembly of K-5 kids were asked why worry about earthquakes when they are so rare? This was yesterday at Central Elementary School in Albany, a 100 + year old URM school which has just been retrofitted with shear walls, a steel fire escape and other features to make it more earthquake resistant. There are about 1000 schools in Oregon that fall into this risky category in earthquake country. So far about 13 have been upgraded…. A long way to go, but it’s a start.
When I first came to OSU as a grad student, I wasn’t sure what aspect of geology I wanted to gravitate too, but after a couple of years, active tectonics, and later earthquakes rise to the top for me, as things we could observe directly, and also as things that actually mattered to people, which seemed like a plus, though not a requirement for me. As time went on, and I started working on the Cascadia subduction zone, it was an odd enigmatic place seemingly devoid of earthquakes, and that alone made it interesting. Then the evidence for past great earthquakes began to come out, which answered some questions but raised others. The enigma was still there, the lack of small earthquakes, even though the riddle of the absence of any earthquakes faded. When Hans Nelson and I started working on paleoseismology, it became more and more clear that regular and very large earthquakes punctuate the recent history in Cascadia. I bought earthquake insurance.
The earthquake story evolved, but remained a scientific issue for me until 2004, when the 2004 earthquake and tsunami hit Banda Aceh, Thailand and places all around the Indian Ocean. In the blink of an eye, this was no longer academic, and there I was talking to CNN on live TV from the wave lab the day after Christmas. Few had ever actually seen a large destructive tsunami and lived to tell about it, let along watch it on TV. But like millions of others, I watched it, and the reality of it was there for all to see.
Suddenly, Cascadia was no longer academic either. 8 years later, we put the finishing touches on the paper that pulled together a decade of paleoseismology and calculated new odds for earthquakes. The numbers got bigger. The enormity of the Pacific Northwest having to actually do something to prepare for this coming earthquake became much more apparent. The Tohoku earthquake put triple exclamation points on it.
Two years ago, a parent in Portland sent me an email asking about 1906 URM school her daughter goes to might be a problem in an earthquake. She said a retrofit was planned but not completed and she felt she was getting the run round from school officials. I told her what any earthquake person would, yes it’s a problem. I suggested she bypass the local officials and write some letters to people starting with state legislators on up. She did better than that and started an organization, and Amanda Gersh and Ted Wolf became involved and instrumental in pushing for changes. Two years later, a bond measure for seismic retrofit passed to retrofit schools on Portland.
Then yesterday, at Central Elementary School, I went to see the dedication of the seismic retrofit and said a few words to the kids along with the folks who made it happen. It was pretty cool really to see this come full circle.