Many campus buildings likely to “fail in even a modest earthquake”

Photo By Cameron Black
In hopes to create a more prepared campus, Peavy Hall faces new construction for earthquake readiness. Retrofitting for earthquake resistance is taking place within the building to ensure safety amidst the increasing awareness and future conversations regarding Oregon’s predicted earthquakes.

Alex Gaub, News Contributor

With the possibility of a magnitude nine earthquake to hit the Pacific Northwest within the next 50 years, Oregon State University is slowly but surely retrofitting campus buildings to meet safety codes.

What would be causing these massive earthquakes, is known as the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a convergent plate boundary that stretches along the Pacif Northwest. When the Cascadia Fault collides with the Juan de Fuca and Gorda plates, small earthquakes are a normal occurrence beause the collisions is constant. Over time, however, tension builds. 

When this tension is released, an earthquake, similar to what caused a massive tsunami to hit Japan in 2011, springs from the hypocenter—or the point of initial rupture. 

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Oregon State University Professor of Geology and Geophysics, Chris Goldfinger, who has studied the Cascadia Subduction Zone since the 1980s, and is one of the foremost scientists on the matter, said he believes that OSU’s infrastructure is not prepared to handle such an event.

“A large number of buildings, many of them on campus, were built long before the knowledge of Cascadia, or plate tectonics for that matter, existed.  There has been little effort to retrofit them, except where major renovation required it.  This means that the town and the campus is packed with collapse-hazard buildings that will likely fail in even a modest earthquake,” Goldfinger said.

Old buildings are scattered across campus. Oregon adopted stricter building codes starting after only 1988, when Goldfinger’s research began to show the danger that Oregon was in. It wasn’t until 1998 that stringent codes began to apply, creating more earthquake-resistant structures. 

Slowly but surely OSU is retrofitting buildings to bring them up to code. There is a ten year plan in place for capital improvement in which one by one buildings are being renovated after their effective “life.” 

“You are seeing investment to either build new—which is a good thing—or to take what exists and retrofit it to bring it up to the current building codes. That’s just going to take time and money,” said OSU Emergency Preparedness Manager Michael Bamberger.

Buildings on campus such as Strand Agricultural Hall, Furman Hall and Kearney Hall have been retrofitted to resist seismic activity. While they look like pure brick buildings, they are reinforced with a wood frame to help keep the bricks in place during an earthquake. According to Bamberger, it would take $1.5 billion to bring 37 of OSU’s older high-priority buildings up to code. 

“Nobody’s writing a check on that,” Bamberger said. 

With the high cost of building renovations, Bamberger has put the majority of his earthquake management efforts into preparing people and programs. 

If an earthquake were to occur, people would have seconds to react. “Drop, cover, and hold” could be a good thing in certain buildings, but not some of OSU’s older ones.

“Older buildings may be collapse-hazards where the “drop cover and hold on” mantra may not work well when the building fails. Our school buildings and workplaces are by far the most vulnerable. Many of them are unreinforced masonry. On the other hand, wood-frame structures often perform relatively well in earthquakes,” said Goldfinger.

During late October there were a few magnitude five earthquakes near the Cascadia Subduction Zone. While this seems like a cause for worry, it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

“Recent earthquakes were not on the subduction zone itself,” said Jonathan Allen, Ph.D, a coastal geomorphologist located in the Newport field office of the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries. 

Allen said according to research, a large earthquake hit the Pacific Northwest in 1700, a magnitude nine earthquake that resulted in coastal villages, along with entire forests, being swallowed by earth and water. 

This natural disaster was recorded by Native American elders in nightmarish legends. These legends, when assessed with scientific data and written record from Japan—which was hit with a tsunami after the event—paint a clear picture of a catastrophic natural disaster. The likes of which we will see again, possibly within our lifetime.

Bamberger advises students and staff to be aware of their surroundings at all times. Knowing where the exits are in a building could save your life, according to Bamberger.

The response time of Corvallis Fire Department, Public Safety, Oregon State Police and other first responders is going to be somewhere from two to six minutes. The earthquake will almost certainly damage power lines, and rupture water and gas lines. Facilities, public works, Northwest Natural and Pacific Power could take a half hour to hours to be on the scene repairing damage from the event. 

This means that students and staff need to be prepared to be without food, water and utilities for at least 72 hours. 

Bamberger believes that the best thing is for everyone to have a plan. There are 10 to 12 thousand people on campus at any given hour, and they need to be prepared to spend at least three hours outside in the elements without overloading first responders.

Bamberger suggests planning using the rule of three:

Three seconds: the amount of time you can live without blood.

Three minutes: the amount of time you can live without air.

Three hours: the amount of time you can live without shelter. 

Three days: the amount of time that you can live without water.

Three weeks: the amount of time that you can live without food.

“This earthquake is going to treat everybody the same. It doesn’t matter if you have a Ph.D or if you’re on day two of your freshman year,” said Bamberger.

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