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Will Chemeketa survive “the Big One”?

Chemeketa’s emergency preparedness video, which is available on Youtube, gives a brief description on what to do if an earthquake hits. Photo by Saul Rodriguez.

By Michael Eubanks

Oregonians may witness a devastating earthquake in their own backyards within the next 50 years.

The “Cascadia Earthquake” as it’s commonly referred to as, could potentially hit the Pacific Northwest within our lifetime. The size of the earthquake is expected to be between the magnitudes of 8.0 and 9.2. The estimated size of the earthquake has been compared to the 2011 Earthquake that struck Japan, which along with the following tsunami, killed more than 18,000 people and caused an estimated $220 billion dollars in damage. Unlike Oregon, however, many of Japan’s buildings were structurally reinforced to withstand massive earthquakes, and the country has an alert system setup to go off when initial seismic waves are detected. Oregon does not have such a system and most of the aging buildings in the affected areas are not expected to survive a disaster of such proportions.

Ben Christensen, a geology instructor at Chemeketa, believes that the Cascadia quake shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“The studies of earthquake recurrence for the Pacific Northwest are fairly in depth, more so than many other subduction zones around the world,” Christensen said though an email.  “Large earthquakes have occurred on the [Cascadia Subduction Zone] fault on average every 300 years. Some portions rupture more often than others, and the value is based on evidence from past earthquakes. The last major quake occurred in 1700, which means the chances of another occurring are only going to increase year to year.  Will it happen tomorrow?  There is always a possibility, but it could also not happen for several decades.”

But to Christensen, predictions are useless if no one actually prepares for the quake.

“More concerning than the timing is that we in Oregon are not ready for when it does finally come,” he said. “I think the media is always focused on the possibility of the quake and the damage it could cause, instead of trying to show what has or hasn’t been done to prepare for it.”

Many of Chemeketa’s buildings could be in danger if a large earthquake struck.  The structural stability of the more than 30 buildings at the main campus and Salem, as well as the six other chemeketa locations in the valley, could determine whether or not each building survives.

“On main campus, the likelihood of collapse for the following buildings is high: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 22 and 50” Shannon Othus-Gault, a geology instructor who teaches a class about earthquakes, said. “These particular buildings were built in or before the 90’s in many cases and that means that they were most likely built with the bare minimum of seismic precautions. You can tell because they are masonry buildings, like most college buildings. Brick maybe looks nice but isn’t great for earthquakes. Instead of shaking with the earthquake, the building’s walls basically shear from the building. Also, I haven’t seen supports for the second floors on main campus buildings, so there is a chance for floor collapse.”


“In the past we have participated in the Great Oregon ShakeOut, which tested the broadcast system at the school and spread awareness for the day,” Christensen said. “I think awareness is key. Most people at this point know of the possibility, but maybe not what to do in the event of a quake, or the actual science behind it.  I’d love to see more discussions on campus regarding the subject. I say this knowing, as a geology instructor, I should probably be one of the people trying to promote such discussions.”In regards to preparing for the earthquake, both instructors
stated they cannot speak for the administration on what it’s done, but did give their personal views on the issue.

But plans must be backed up by actions in order to save lives.

“I can’t say I haven’t seen stuff piled on top of shelves, or loose cabinets not tied to the walls. So, I would say, from my perspective, that there is a plan and its on signage throughout buildings and rooms but I’m not sure if there is anything other than a plan for during the earthquake being provided. A quick review of the Chemeketa’s website and searches on the internet provide very little in terms of Chemeketa’s preparations,” Othus-Gault said.

In the event of a major earthquake, where you are in a building can have a major impact on your chances of survival.

“I’m not sure how safe you would be if the building collapsed and you were on the 1st floor. I guess the same duck and cover rules apply, but you better hope you’re under a strong desk,” Othus-Gault said.

So if “the big one” does hit, what should you do to stay safe?

“The typical advice is that during the shaking you should stay where you are.  If you’re outside, stay outside.  If you’re inside, stay inside.  Get under something solid… …hold onto it, and cover your head and neck.  Make sure you are away from anything that could potentially fall on you (light fixtures, book cases, power lines, street lamps etc).  Stay low to the ground, on your hands and knees.  Once the shaking has stopped if you are inside head outside into the open (if there is a clear/safe path to do so),” Christensen said.

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