Two years ago, the Pacific Northwest awakened to the fact that the largest earthquake in American history is destined to shake us to our foundations — and then some.
Scientists have known a devastating Cascadia subduction zone quake was coming, but a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 New Yorker article by Kathryn Schulz was the first time many realized the magnitude of it all. That first night after reading the report I could barely sleep.
In case we'd forgotten the threat, this summer brought another scare, in the form of a simulation video released by Multnomah County demonstrating how the Burnside Bridge, perhaps the most vital arterial connector in the city, would be the first Portland span to go in a major quake.
Fear often brings out the worst in people, yet ultimately these earthquake warnings are a gift: the chance to prepare ourselves. So have we been doing enough to heed that warning? I'm not so sure.
Metro designates the Burnside Bridge as a priority-one emergency route across the Willamette for first responders. We also need to protect the 40,000 vehicles crossing the bridge daily, as well 130,000 vehicles passing underneath it each day on Interstate 5, and the 78,000 people using the MAX stop underneath the span.
The Burnside Bridge is supported by concrete columns with very little steel reinforcement, and is built on top of unstable soil. It's got to go. Replacing it would not be cheap, but the human and economic cost would be exponentially greater not to do so.
Yet we needn't think of a replacement bridge as a reluctant burden, for it can be a great opportunity to create a new Portland landmark. What if we could serve those same 40,000 vehicles but have better protected bike lanes and pedestrian pathways? What if we could, like Thomas Heatherwick's Garden Bridge design for London (which was recently rejected), create greenspace right over the river, making the Burnside Bridge a place not just to cross but to linger?
Beside the Burnside Bridge in Old Town are some of Portland's most beautiful and historic 19th century buildings. But these unreinforced masonry structures, which also dot many of Oregon's best main streets, are the most vulnerable to a quake.
Mandating costly seismic upgrades for these buildings at the state or local level will only hasten the problem by prompting owners to demolish instead of renovate. Coupled with those code changes must be incentives like Senate Bill 311 in the Oregon State Legislature, which would provide up to a 15-year state property tax exemption to owners of commercial, industrial or multifamily buildings if they are seismically retrofitted. This should be followed by county and city-level tax breaks, collectively making renovations pencil out.
No incentive or code change will completely save us an 8.0 earthquake's destruction. But just as we collectively pool our
resources to build schools, hire first responders and defend our borders, so too must we commit ourselves to saving our historic buildings and building resilient infrastructure. Anything else is a wasted chance to save lives and preserve the soul of our city.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com