Disaster resilience in the Pacific Northwest

How structures can shape up against megafault earthquakes and tsunamis

Seismologists like to joke that earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.

But not all seismic building codes are equal and in the past, the conventional philosophy in the U.S. has been to build for “life safety”. In other words, build so that occupants aren’t killed when quakes hit. Another matter is the question of whether the building will be at all usable post-quake.

This is different in countries like Japan and Chile where the frequency of high magnitude earthquakes affects the attitude toward seismic safety in a way that’s reflected in their design practices.

Nowadays “resilience” is the buzzword in design circles and it’s something that the Chileans and Japanese have been practicing for a while. It means that buildings and structures need to be designed to save lives and will actually be usable with minor repairs within a reasonable period after the quake.  Building owners need to take it upon themselves to retrofit and or build new buildings that are better than code. It makes sense to protect an investment in a country that’s rocked by magnitude 8 or greater quakes every decade or so.  And build skyscrapers, homes, bridges, schools and airports, that won’t need to be torn down and replaced every time a big quake hits. 

We don’t have that mentality here yet in the U.S, not even in the most seismically vulnerable area of the country—the West Coast. Not in California, not in Seattle, not in Portland. Not yet.

But what we do have here is at least a green attitude. When I visited Portland last month to cover this story for TechKnow, I was struck by the sustainable ethos that permeates everyday life.  I ate the most delicious tofu Reuben I’ve ever had and watched as the remnants of  our lunch were carefully composted by my host.  She informed me that garbage collection only comes once every other week to encourage less waste, more composting. 

But seismic codes and practices that promote resilient buildings are also green practices.  The first standards to promote this kind of thinking have just come out. Like LEED is to green architecture, the RELi program will be for resilient architecture with lists of actions for architects and structural engineers to aim for in their design practices. Hazard mitigation and preparation are a particular focus.

In the wake of disasters like Katrina and Sandy, this kind of disaster resilience mentality is something that other parts of the US could benefit from as well.

Most of us would rather not think about worst case scenarios of what Mother Nature can throw at us. And as Americans, we’re lucky to live in a part of the world where we’re a little less prone to them than other regions.  Let that be all the more reason to be more prepared—not less—when it’s our turn. 

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter