Opinion: Will Oregon’s legislature choose resiliency?

By Douglas Toomey, Ph.D., Professor, University of Oregon
Despite full knowledge of the risks the Cascadia Subduction Zone poses, Oregon’s legislature has been unable to fund hazard mitigation activities. Hopefully that will change soon.
Citation: Toomey, Douglas, (2020), Will Oregon’s legislature choose resiliency? http://doi.org/10.32858/temblor.072

Downtown Portland skyline with Mt. Hood in the background. Photo Credit: Truflip99 (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Downtown Portland skyline with Mt. Hood in the background. Photo Credit: Truflip99 (CC BY-SA 4.0)


More than 320 years ago (January 26, 1700 A.D.) the Cascadia Subduction Zone produced a magnitude ~9 earthquake and tsunami that was retold in Native American oral traditions (Ludwin et al., 2005) and recorded by Japanese historic tsunami records (Satake et al., 1996). More than 280 years passed before scientists first connected these oral and written histories to the earthquake and tsunami hazard intrinsic to the Pacific Northwest. In 1993, Oregon updated its building codes to accommodate shaking due to a Cascadia Subduction Zone event. Unfortunately, by that time, the built infrastructure and lifelines that support Oregon’s people and economy were constructed without consideration of Cascadia’s hazard. Some in Oregon are trying to rectify that situation but are facing hurdles in the legislature. I, along with many others, argue there’s no time to waste.

Significant risk

If a full-length rupture of Cascadia occurred today, in Oregon alone, the resultant violent shaking and tsunami inundation would likely result in 1,000 to 10,000 deaths and economic losses of approximately $32 billion. Restoration of basic services that serve society would take many months and in some cases years. For good reason, many in Oregon consider the Cascadia Subduction Zone an existential threat to its people, built infrastructure and continued economic vitality.

Addressing the risk

To address the profound risk of Cascadia, in October 2019, Governor Kate Brown and State Resilience Officer Mike Harryman issued the policy agenda Resiliency 2025: Improving Our Readiness for the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami. The policy agenda focuses on six key strategies:

1. Continue state investments in seismic upgrades of schools and emergency services buildings throughout Oregon.
2. Develop a plan for the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub to prevent and mitigate catastrophic failure and ensure fuel supplies and alternate energy sources are available to responders and the public.
3. Implement a statewide Earthquake Early Warning system by 2023.
4. Work with local governments, community groups and the American Red Cross to ensure that 250,000 vulnerable homes have two-week ready supplies in the next three years.
5. Strengthen local emergency management organizations and develop more robust logistical staging bases, local supply chains, and more earthquake and mass displacement insurance options.
6. Update the Oregon Resilience Plan in 2021 to reflect current best practices, community input, and academic research, including a specific plan for the Oregon Coast.

The Resiliency 2025 agenda builds on the momentum generated by the original 2013 Oregon Resilience Plan, which was prepared by the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission. The 2013 plan has become the de facto playbook that state and federal policymakers and stakeholders throughout Oregon look to for guidance; updating the plan in 2021 is a key strategy for moving forward.


Governor Kate Brown signs a proclamation declaring Cascadia week. Credit: Douglas Toomey
Governor Kate Brown signs a proclamation declaring Cascadia week. Credit: Douglas Toomey


A legislative push and stalemate

To continue forward momentum, it has become clear that key areas need further investment. Governor Brown’s recommended 2019-2021 base budget and policy agenda, Turning Point: An Agenda for Oregon’s Future, included funding requests for her six key disaster preparedness strategies.

However, the 2019 summer session of the Oregon legislature did not advance any of the six key strategies as the legislative body made national news with an unprecedented level of acrimonious debate. It’s not that there wasn’t support for these strategies; the problem is that they got caught in political crossfire. Following the 2019 session, editorials throughout the state lamented the legislature’s decision not to support implementation of a statewide Earthquake Early Warning system by 2023 (Editorial: Secret Deal Killed Disaster Preparedness). Governor Brown said the decision not to expand the ShakeAlert system was one of the “biggest disappointments” of the 2019 legislative session.

But because Oregon operates on a biennium budget, there is an opportunity to revisit the Governor’s resiliency agenda during the current February 2020 “short session.” To that end, Governor Brown introduced Senate Bill 1537, which recommends investments in the ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning system ($7.5M), public outreach and education ($375,000), the 2-Week Ready Oregon program of Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management ($2.7M), an assessment of Dam Safety by the Water Resources Department ($2M), and Updating the Oregon Resilience and Coastal Plan ($125,000).

State investment in ShakeAlert is a central pillar of Senate Bill 1537. ShakeAlert is administered by the U.S. Geological Survey, with collaboration from the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN) — cooperatively operated by the University of Washington and the University of Oregon — Caltech, and University of California, Berkeley. The ShakeAlert system uses all three West Coast states’ seismic networks and currently includes about 800 seismometer stations, with the majority in California. However, to be fully operational the network must expand to 1,675 sensors (Given et al., 2018). To date, investments in seismic networks by California and Washington have vastly exceeded investments by Oregon, with the completeness of the ShakeAlert system in Oregon hovering around 50%.

An urgent need to act

As a co-principal investigator in the West-Coast-wide ShakeAlert system and director of the Oregon Hazards Lab, I urge the legislature to choose resilience now by supporting Senate Bill 1537. I do not stand alone in my request. The public record includes letters of support for investing in an Earthquake Early Warning network from Oregon’s national Congressional delegation — Representatives DeFazio, Schrader and Bonamici; the treasurers of Oregon, California and Washington — Treasurers Read, Ma and Davidson, respectively; and from many tens of stakeholders that include electric and water utilities, healthcare providers, K-16 schools and universities, regional councils of government, emergency managers, sheriffs’ offices, transportation stakeholders and the private sector.

What will the impacts be if Oregon’s legislature does not support ShakeAlert and Oregon lags even further behind its neighbors to the north and south? Because Oregon lies in the center of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, our performance affects the entire West Coast of North America. By not completing ShakeAlert, we not only put Oregonians at greater risk, we also weaken the resiliency of Washington, California and British Columbia. Also, an incomplete ShakeAlert network generates more false alerts and this will undermine the confidence of the public and private sectors.

We need you to act too

In addition to urging Oregon’s legislature to support completion of ShakeAlert in our state, I urge the scientific community to engage more robustly with their local, state and federal policymakers. Since publication of the original Oregon Resilience Plan in 2013, within Oregon there has been a remarkable statewide effort to improve resilience. Policymakers and agencies at local, state and federal levels routinely pull together to improve coordination of preparedness and to seek necessary resources. At the community, grassroots level, many passionate individuals volunteer their time to improve our readiness for the next natural disaster. Our team at the University of Oregon joined the ShakeAlert coalition in 2015. My personal experiences tell me that the general public, policymakers and the private sector, are hungry for the expertise, leadership and professionalism of the science community.

It is time for the Oregon legislature to match the commitment of its constituency.

Toomey is a professor at the University of Oregon, a co-principal investigator in the West-Coast-wide ShakeAlert system, and director of the Oregon Hazards Lab.
Further Reading:
Given, D.D., Allen, R.M., Baltay, A.S., Bodin, P., Cochran, E.S., Creager, K., Gee, L.S., Hauksson, E., Heaton, T.H., Hellweg, M., Murray, J.R., Thomas, V.I., Toomey, D., and Yelin, T.S. (2018). Revised technical implementation plan for the ShakeAlert system—An earthquake early warning system for the West Coast of the United States: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2018–1155, 42 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/ofr20181155. [Supersedes USGS Open-File Report 2014–1097.]

Ludwin, R.S., Dennis, R., Carver, D., McMillan, A.D., Losey, R., Clague, J., Jonientz-Trisler, C., Bowechop, J., Wray, J., James, K. (2005). Dating the 1700 Cascadia Earthquake: Great Coastal Earthquakes in Native Stories. Seismological Research Letters; 76 (2): 140–148. doi: https://doi.org/10.1785/gssrl.76.2.140.

Satake, K., Shimazaki, K.,Tsuji, Y., and Ueda, U. (1996). Time and size of a giant earthquake in Cascadia inferred from Japanese tsunami records of January 1700, Nature 379, 246–249. https://doi.org/10.1038/379246a0.