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Commissioner Steve Novick

Official Website for Commissioner Steve Novick

Phone: 503-823-4682

fax: 503-823-4019

1221 SW 4th Ave. Suite 210, Portland, OR 97204

Earthquake Preparedness: It Starts at Home

BEECNby Commissioner Steve Novick-- One of my highest priorities as a City Commissioner is to do what I can to ensure that Portland is better prepared to survive an earthquake. Geologists tell us that there is a 10 to 15 percent chance that a truly massive earthquake will strike Oregon, including Portland, in the next 50 years. If 10 to 15 percent (in other words, between 1 in 10 and 1 in 7) doesn't sound like much, consider the fact that your lifetime risk of dying in a car accident is about 1 in 84. And your lifetime risk of death by shark attack is 1 in 60,453. So if you're scared of car accidents, you should take the earthquake threat seriously. If you're scared of sharks, you should take the earthquake threat REALLY seriously.

There are many things that, ideally we should be doing to prepare for the earthquake, some of which would take what seem like unfathomable amounts of money. But here is one thing we can do that is both eminently doable and vitally important. We can preserve our neighborhoods by taking simple steps to ensure that tens of thousands of houses survive The Big One.

The city estimates that there are 105,000 Portland homes that were built before 1970 and therefore were probably not initially bolted to their foundations. That makes them highly vulnerable during a major quake; they could be knocked off their foundations and damaged to the point that they are uninhabitable. Of course, some homeowners have bolted their houses down in the years since they were built, but we don't know how many. The city's best estimate is that at least 50,000 homes are still not bolted down.

Fortunately, in most cases, it is not insanely expensive to bolt a house down. A local contractor that does a lot of seismic strengthening says the average cost is $3,400. For some people, that's a lot of money. But for people who can afford to spend $20,000 remodeling their kitchen, it's feasible. That's why the Bureau of Development Services, supported by Commissioner Dan Saltzman, is developing a strategy to make sure that whenever Portlanders apply for building/remodeling permits, they get information about the importance and relative ease of quake-proofing their homes.

The $170 million it would cost to bolt down 50,000 homes is also a mere fraction of what FEMA spends on some major disasters. That's why I asked our congressional delegation if the federal government could find some way to subsidize the cost of those retrofits, by providing no-interest or low-interest loans or direct cash subsidies. It would save FEMA a lot of money in the long run. In response to my request, the ever-energetic Congressman Blumenauer called together State and Federal disaster officials who said that if FEMA's "pre-disaster mitigation" program is reauthorized by Congress, the City and State should submit an application for a grant from the program. The State officials thought that we could make a strong case to get one of those grants. Congressman Blumenauer is going to fight hard to get that program reauthorized and I am confident the rest of our Congressional delegation will join him. Historically, the maximum grant under that program is about $3 million - but every bit helps. And maybe, in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, Congress might increase funding for disaster preparation programs.

Philanthropic organizations and individuals can also play a role in the effort. Phil Knight gave $100 million to Oregon Health & Science University. If he would pay the same amount to bolt down 29,411 houses, here's one vote for putting a swoosh on the entrance to City Hall.

Portland prides itself on its commitment to "sustainability." But a city that isn't prepared to survive an earthquake that we all know is coming isn't very "sustainable" at all. That's why the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is prepared to join Development Services and the Office of Emergency Management in educating Portlanders about this issue.

I hope you will join me and the City bureaus in spreading the word about earthquake preparedness, and especially the importance of bolting homes down. And if you see Congressman Blumenauer, give him an "atta boy" for taking this issue on.