October 31, 2013 | Portland Tribune-- Not every Portland family can plunk down $4,000 to make their home safer during an earthquake, as city Commissioner Steve Novick and his fiancée did after purchasing their Multnomah Village home a year ago.
But Novick got another idea while talking to his seismic retrofit contractor in August. Why not get more homeowners to install valves that automatically cut off the natural gas flow during an earthquake?
“It’s about a $325 item,” Novick says, and it could save their home from catching fire.
In the devastating 1906 quake in San Francisco, “there was more damage done by fires after the earthquake than from the earthquake itself,” Novick says. A report issued on the centennial of the earthquake found there were more than 30 fires caused by ruptured natural gas mains, which destroyed about 25,000 buildings.
Times have changed, but there still were many fires traced to leaking natural gas lines after the Northridge earthquake of 1994 in Los Angeles. A report by the assistant Los Angeles fire chief found there were 158 structure fires in the first 27.5 hours after the quake, mostly near the epicenter in the Reseda community of L.A. There also were 126 reported incidents of leaking natural gas.
“Two thirds of the fires that are caused during an earthquake are caused from cracking gas lines,” says Steve Gemmell, owner/operator of Earthquake Tech, which did the work on Novick’s house.
Novick, now overseeing the city Bureau of Emergency Management, is working with the bureau on a proposed city ordinance that might require installation of automatic gas shutoff valves when a home is sold in Portland. He figures people selling a home will be in a position to afford it, and it might make the new mandate easier to sell.
His fellow city commissioners seem to like the idea, Novick says. The most common and expensive part of home seismic retrofits is bolting the foundation to the first floor, so the house might not jostle during a quake.
But buildings can survive a quake fine and still end up catching on fire, says Tim Cook, a structural consultant for Earthquake Tech.
A quake might occur while homeowners are away and unable to turn off their gas lines, Gemmell says. Or they don’t have the wherewithal during an earthquake to find a wrench and turn off the gas themselves.
Some Portlanders are likely more familiar with the San Andreas Fault that causes more quakes in California than the Cascadia subduction zone off the Northwest coast. But geologists warn that we are in earthquake country, too, and could face another quake rivaling the massive magnitude 9 event that rocked the Oregon Coast on Jan. 26, 1700.
Novick says he doesn’t want to see a repeat of what occurred after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when tens of thousands of New Orleans residents fled the city and never returned.
“They’re much more likely to come back if their homes are still there,” Novick says. “After the earthquake, we want the city to come back.”
The “California valve” installed by Earthquake Tech relies READ FULL ARTICLE