Eathquake musings

Full Circle!

with 7 comments

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.

Written by eqgold

April 26, 2013 at 2:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses

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  1. Chris, what a privilege it has been to make part of that journey with you! Thank you for your support and encouragement to Oregon Parents for Quake-Resistant Schools — slowly but surely, we are making headway.


    Ted Wolf

    May 24, 2013 at 12:35 am

    • Thanks Ted and Amanda, the privilege is all mine. All I do is geology and that’s easy, you two are doing the hard part, getting humans to do the right thing.



      May 24, 2013 at 1:16 am

  2. And how lucky are we Oregon parents to have Chris Goldfinger not only doing the science, but also personally showing up to advocate for our kids at events like the Central Albany Elementary’s retrofit dedication ceremony. Chris, if it weren’t for you emailing me and encouraging me, OPQRS (Oregon Parents for Quake Resistant Schools) wouldn’t exist and Ted Wolf and I might not have met. We can’t claim to be gaining great ground and things aren’t happening as fast as we’d like, but we’re glad to be doing something to raise awareness about the need for school retrofits. All progress is good progress, but we need more parents to care about the issue, and then spread the word. Which they can do through our open petition to the governor. (link below)
    Thanks again,
    Amanda Gersh
    co-founder, OPQRS


    Amanda Gersh

    May 23, 2013 at 11:37 pm

  3. Can’t find the post online. Where does one look to see if their schools are classifies as risky? Thanks, Marian Boye



    April 26, 2013 at 4:21 pm

  4. You have much reason to be gratified over what you describe as “Full Circle !”.

    And you’re so correct that there’s so much more needing to be done – preparing for the eventual significant next subduction quake.

    You’re also correct that the 2004 Boxing Day disaster in the Indian Ocean has been a great awakener for the public – particularly thanks to the flood of good TV coverage about it.

    But there are several points of caution: You suggest, not giving dates, that “The earthquake story evolved, but remained a scientific issue until 2004”.

    Perhaps it’s a matter of definition. While Brian Atwater clearly first established the Cascadia Subduction’s ugly history along the Washington State seacoast in 1986, and Curt Peterson’s work along the Oregon seacoast in 1993 and earlier expanded knowledge of the ugly past, one could maintain these findings remained ‘/_a scientific issue_/’ . . . but that came to an end for Oregon’s officialdom with the Loma Prieta quake in 1989. High ranking Oregon officials came back from Sacramento realizing steps needed to be taken about Cascadia.

    You can see things began happening with the Building Code and so on – as result of that. Slow, sluggish toughening of the Building Code – but still real progress.

    Of course Oregon’s infrastructure built after WWII to accommodate the skyrocketing Oregon population growth was largely in place _/*before*/_ Atwater’s blockbuster of 1986 or Loma Prieta 1989 – so Oregon faces considerable devastation from a significant Cascadia quake impacting much of that infrastructure.

    Another point of caution: “Nobody had ever actually seen a large destructive tsunami and lived to tell about it.” That’s patently not true. Read the record on Krakatoa in the Victorian era – and jump ahead to 1946 when the U.S. Coastguardsmen at the Scotch Cap upper level had to evacuate when the tsunami flooded into their area, having wiped out the lighthouse below with its entire crew. And look at the record of approximately 50ft waves from that event striking Hilo, Hawaii, _without warning_ – one dock worker clinging to the warehouse trusswork of the roof as the waves roared through under him, etc. Look at the classic news photo in Hilo of men running toward the camera as one of the waves smashed through palm trees behind them.

    There’s no question at all that TV coverage of the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster and the recent Japanese disaster have impressed many people nationwide about reality of tsunami danger – and the reality of it. No question at all about that. And that probably promises fewer casualties here along the Cascadia coastline when the next subduction quake occurs.

    However, where some of us are officially responsible for public safety, we know to expect there will still be people hustling to the local bridge because it’s an ideal place to get a picture of any incoming tsunami. We are going to “lose” people – we have to expect that. The job is to “lose” as few as possible, and the public being educated by TV coverage of the 2004 and 2011 disasters gives quite a leg up on that problem.

    Of course as time passes, vivid impact of that TV coverage will be lost as young people who’ve never seen it will increase their proportion of the population.

    All in all, your enthusiasm has much value – my carping about several points you made is offered to encourage more attention to the history of all this – to avoid misstatement.

    Cordially –


    Alfred A. Aya Jr.

    April 26, 2013 at 6:31 am

    • Hi Alfred, Thanks for your comments, and points taken. I was really referring to my own personal thoughts about Cascadia earthquakes that changed in 2004. The awareness of the problem didn’t start then by any means, but it was brought into sharp focus for many after that. And you’re right of course, a few people have seen and survived tsunami in Hilo and other places. The nice thing about blogs is you can edit them!
      Keep up the good work! Chris



      April 26, 2013 at 5:04 pm

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