Skip to Main Content View Text-Only

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

Partnerships key to preparing for 'The Big One'

A recent guest column in The Oregonian/OregonLive questioned the City of Portland’s efforts to encourage residents to seismically retrofit their homes. I couldn’t disagree more.

For nearly a century and a half following Portland’s founding in 1851, residents remained blissfully unaware of the seismic danger to the region lurking off the Oregon coast. Homes and businesses, roads and bridges were constructed without a catastrophic Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake in mind. In the 1970s and 80s, this changed as scientists increased their understanding of the danger and building codes began to catch up. And thanks to the widely-read article in The New Yorker last summer, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Unprepared” series, and the efforts of scientists and emergency managers, the public is now more aware than ever that Portland is in earthquake country. Unfortunately the bulk of Portland’s building stock remains vulnerable to a major seismic event.

Getting our built infrastructure ready for the “Big One” requires approaching the issue on many fronts. We should look to adopting new policies and leveraging resources wherever they can be found, driven by a singular goal: saving lives when the ground starts shaking, and getting Portland up and running again as quickly as possible.

Key to achieving this outcome is ensuring Portland homes are safe and livable after a quake. There are an estimated 100,000 older single-family homes in the city limits built prior to 1974 potentially vulnerable and in need of a seismic retrofit. If residents are unable to stay in their homes, there is a legitimate concern they will be forced to move away in a disaster, as happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Although some can afford the typical $3,000-$8,000 retrofit cost, many cannot. The Oregon Resilience Plan– Oregon’s 50-year roadmap to prepare for a Cacsadia quake –identifies this issue and recommends the adoption of programs and incentives to encourage homeowners to retrofit their homes.

Last week, I was pleased to announce that Portland received a $500,000 FEMA pre-disaster mitigation grant, thanks in part to the efforts of Congressman Earl Blumenauer and the other members of Portland’s federal delegation. We are fortunate to receive the award – in 2015, only $11 million was available nationally on a competitive basis. Fortunately, this pre-disaster competitive grant funding was increased to around $50 million in 2016, and I—along with Emergency Management Director Carmen Merlo— will go after every penny of available pre-disaster FEMA resources to help strengthen Portland’s natural and built infrastructure, including homes, businesses and institutions.

Building on a successful partnership between the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM) and Enhabit (formerly Clean Energy Works), the pre-disaster grant funds will be available to fund some of the retrofit costs for 150 homeowners. These funds have long-term benefits not just to individuals (by improving the safety and resilience of their homes), but also to the City at large by increasing the number of residents able to remain in Portland after a quake and to FEMA by reducing the amount of money needed for disaster recovery. Ensuring a robust inventory of retrofitted homes is important in a region where housing is already in short supply. Unless we take action, an earthquake could exacerbate our existing housing crisis and force residents to move away.

Portland also needs to address the danger posed by nearly 1,800 unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs), often made of brick. URMs define the character and culture of many of our neighborhoods and business districts. Unfortunately they are also extremely vulnerable to seismic activity. My office has been working with PBEM, Portland Bureau of Development Services, Portland Development Commission, and other community stakeholders to come up with a mandatory URM retrofit policy to keep Portlanders safe, and also consider the historic nature of these buildings. Our neighbors in California have already taken on this problem; it is now time for us to do the same. I look forward to bringing a policy forward for Council to consider in the summer.

Although an enormous amount of work is still needed to prepare us for disaster, we now clearly understand the risk. Every structure built today is engineered for the Cascadia quake. Over time our infrastructure will gradually improve as buildings are upgraded and replaced. But the legacy of 150 years of construction still remains with us today. While we grapple with many important and pressing issues, we must also prioritize investments in Portland’s future by taking actions now to prepare for an earthquake.

Resilience should be seen as the ultimate indicator of Portland’s sustainability. I will continue to seek funding to help keep Portland standing strong after the Big One and continue this program to make it easier for Portlanders to retrofit their homes – especially those unable to pay the entire cost.