Life in Portland

Be Prepared, Part One: Seismic Retrofitting

FROM THE NEW YORKER ARTICLE "THE REALLY BIG ONE". ILLUSTRATION BY CHRISTOPH NIEMANN; MAP BY ZIGGYMAJ / GETTY

FROM THE NEW YORKER ARTICLE "THE REALLY BIG ONE". ILLUSTRATION BY CHRISTOPH NIEMANN; MAP BY ZIGGYMAJ / GETTY

Back in March we hosted an Earthquake Preparedness Workshop with Carmen Merlo, Director of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. This is the type of event I would normally avoid, because frankly, it scares me. I think there are basically three types of people when it comes to emergency preparedness: 

  • Those that prepare.
  • Those that don't and just assume/hope that it will never happen and/or that if it does they won't be around for the aftermath.
  • And those that know they should prepare, but the mere thought of it causes them sufficient anxiety to avoid learning/doing anything about it.

I tend to fall into the last category. 

As a native Portlander, I always congratulated myself on the incredible luck of having been born and raised in an area that basically experienced no natural disasters of any kind. No tornado alley like the Midwest, no hurricanes like the Eastern seaboard, and no earthquakes like California. Yes, we may have had nine months of grey and rain each year (back in the day) but that seemed a fair trade off for terra firma, an ocean that respected the boundaries of the shore, and winds that did little more than blow one's umbrella inside-out. (Yes, Portlanders do occasionally use umbrellas!)

Later in life I came to realize that we did occasionally experience a bit of rumbling, but certainly not enough to constitute concern. (I was living in NY at the time of the 2001 Seattle quake, so that didn't really rock my world, pardon the pun). So it was indeed a rude awakening when I was casually flipping through the July 2014 issue of Portland Monthly in search of my next great dining destination and instead came face-to-face with a lengthy spread on the Cascadia Subduction Quake. Against my better judgement, I read through the various articles about what would happen if (or more insistently, when) the Big One hit, what we should be doing to prepare, and how woefully ill-prepared we were as individuals, and as a collective community. By the time I finished, I was in desperate need of a craft cocktail, and went to search one out and put the Big One out of my mind.

Carmen Merlo, Director of Portland Bureau of Emergency Management

Carmen Merlo, Director of Portland Bureau of Emergency Management

Fast forward to that workshop in March, which my job compelled me to attend, and here I was again grappling with the conflicting impulses to ignore it and hope it never happens, or to do what I could to be prepared in the event that it did. The thing about Carmen Merlo is that she focuses on what we actually do have control over: preparing as best we can and responding as our best selves. While the presentation did include its share of gasp-inducing images of leveled buildings and destruction in Christchurch, NZ--where she had visited to learn from their experience and gain insight into what Portland can do to improve our structures and services to better weather such a hit--Carmen's message was all about what to do now to minimize the potential of damage and the resilience and camaraderie of people when responding to the aftermath of such disasters. 

On an individual level our preparedness can be broken down into four areas:

  • Our housing structure/environment
  • Our emergency supplies
  • Our emergency communication plan
  • Our community support

As the saying goes, the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. So I am moving down this list one by one. 

Carmen pointed out that our house is not only our shelter and home, but also for many people, their single greatest asset. And as such, we should do what we can to protect our homes from damage and destruction by ensuring our structure is prepared for seismic activity. For those with homes built after 1976 you are probably in good shape, because that was when seismic code requirements were first implemented. My cute, little 1948 cottage does not fall into that category. Having learned that the retrofit for Carmen's own house cost upwards of 25K (she is one that walks her talk) I was worried about the cost of such an endeavor. After our next-door neighbors had their almost identical house retrofitted this Spring, I had a better sense of the process and the probable cost and was ready to bite the bullet.

Concrete wall, post and beam retrofit image by Earthquake Tech.

Concrete wall, post and beam retrofit image by Earthquake Tech.

I should probably be more diligent about collecting bids for work, but once I decide to do something I just want to get on with it. So I followed my (very organized and particular) neighbor's lead and booked a consultation with NW Seismic. When it was mentioned during our walkthrough that they had also done the work on Carmen's house, I felt even more confident about my choice. (Note: there are other contractors in Portland that do this same work, and I encourage you to take the time to meet with more than one contractor and compare price when selecting someone to do work on your house. As the saying goes, do as I say, not as I do.)

I was excited and nervous for the appointment, which I had to book a few weeks out. Excited to move ahead and do what I could to better prepare our house, and nervous about what I'd find out and more potential fears that might arise from thinking and talking about earthquakes. Tim's calm and friendly demeanor put me at ease right away, and we learned a lot about foundations in general, different methods of retrofitting for seismic activity, and how they determine the best methods. I asked a lot of questions and Tim did a great job of explaining. By the end of the consultation I was eager to schedule the work, especially as the date was going to be at least three months out. 

I'm happy to note that the price for retrofitting our house won't come anywhere close to 25K. When all is said and done, it should come in under 3K for the structural reinforcement,  earthquake gas shut-off valve, and finish work. Our overall cost will be higher than our neighbors', due to the fact that we have a partially finished basement that will require removal of drywall and patching it up again, and of course when there's drywall you never know what you'll find there until you open it up. (Note: If you plan on finishing your basement do yourself a favor and schedule your seismic retrofitting beforehand!)

So now we focus on preparing the basement for an easy work day in September, by cleaning out the basement in order to provide easy access to the walls and mudsill, and work on finding a good drywall contractor so we can schedule them for the patch work as soon as the retrofitting is done. 

I asked my neighbor if she slept better now that she'd had the retrofitting done. She said, no, she still doesn't have the emergency supplies she knows she should have. But at least she's given her home the best possible chance of making it through. One bite at a time.