New program to help homeowners, businesses assess their earthquake risks


CORVALLIS, Ore. – The Cascadia Lifelines Program, operated by Oregon State University and its lifeline infrastructure partners, has created a new online tool that anyone in Oregon can use to better identify the risks they face from a major earthquake anticipated on the Cascadia subduction zone.

Called the Oregon Hazard Explorer for Lifeline Program, or OHELP, the program is free to any individual, homeowner, agency, business or industry that wishes to use it.

The program provides basic information about risks from landslides, ground shaking and liquefaction at specific sites during a subduction zone earthquake - a massive, regional event that may reach magnitude 9 at some point in the Pacific Northwest’s future.

This initiative, officials say, is just one of several important accomplishments since the Cascadia Lifelines Program began three years ago, as a collaborative effort of OSU and its partners in industry, the state of Oregon and federal government agencies. It’s another sign of progress, they say, in the region’s long term preparation for a catastrophic disaster that’s seen as sure to come.

“The expected earthquake on the Cascadia subduction zone is going to be the single largest natural disaster ever to face the United States,” said Scott Ashford, dean of the OSU College of Engineering and director of the Cascadia Lifelines Program.

“This event will likely be so severe, causing billions of dollars in damage, that it’s more than just a state or regional concern. It’s one we should be preparing for on a national level. The good news is that Oregon’s state government is now moving in the right direction. We’re starting to retrofit schools, and the awareness of the issue is growing. There’s just so much that needs to be done. This is a commitment that will take decades.”

OSU is taking a leadership role in providing some of the scientific research to help address the concerns, and OHELP is one of the latest results. It can be found online at the web site of the Cascadia Lifelines Program, at http://cascadia.oregonstate.edu/

This program can be used with four different scenarios of earthquake magnitude to predict localized impacts, experts say, and could help everyone from homeowners to hospitals or utility companies to evaluate the threats posed to structures, roads, pipelines, bridges, or anything else at risk.

“OHELP is an excellent first step in evaluating risks from a subduction zone earthquake,” Ashford said. “It’s free, and about all you need to obtain data is an address. For a more detailed and specific analysis, people may still need a consulting geologist. But we’re excited about the potential of this system to provide some important preliminary data.”

The Cascadia Lifelines Program was one of the region’s first efforts to begin preparation for a subduction zone earthquake, and as its name suggests, it focuses work on “lifelines” - the transportation, water, electricity and other infrastructure that will be most critical to recovery after an earthquake. Its goals are to help prepare for an earthquake, reduce loss of life, mitigate damage in the most cost-effective ways, and facilitate recovery after the event. Large amounts of Oregon infrastructure are particularly vulnerable because they were built before experts realized the future threat from subduction zone earthquakes.

The program has five regular members who will all contribute at least $125,000 to this initiative: the Oregon Department of Transportation, Portland General Electric, Bonneville Power Administration, Northwest Natural Gas and the Port of Portland. Associate members include the Eugene Water and Electric Board, Portland Water Bureau and the Tualatin Water District. More members are being sought.

The consortium’s recent progress has focused on these efforts:

  • OSU researchers have developed a low-cost method to protect masonry buildings with reinforcing steel that’s comparatively quick and affordable. This can be used with key infrastructure such as electric substations or water pumping station building facilities to improve their structural performance during an earthquake.
  • Concrete power poles are being tested for their performance under earthquake conditions to help determine whether they should be replaced or retrofitted.
  • Transportation systems and corridors are being studied to determine what routes are most likely to be impassable following an earthquake and where repairs or reinforcement would be most cost-effective.
  • Researchers are trying to more specifically determine the liquefaction potential of the Willamette silt, a thick and somewhat unique layer of sediments deposited by ancient floods that are partly clay, partly sand, and underlie most structures in the Willamette Valley.
  • A consortium decision to study risks facing underground pipeline systems.

“This has been an exceptionally successful program, and a great example of academia, government and private industry joining forces to tackle a major threat,” Ashford said. “Many of our stakeholders face common risks, and we’re trying to develop joint solutions that can be widely used.”

The program, Ashford said, will also complement the growing involvement of other state and federal agencies to build public awareness and response to these risks, such as the Cascadia Rising 2016 drill being organized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to be held June 7-10.

The OSU College of Engineering is also sponsoring an engineering short course titled Cascadia Resilience on July 14-15. The course is designed for engineers and other professionals who want to learn more about Cascadia subduction zone earthquakes and tsunamis.

The last earthquake on the Cascadia Subduction Zone occurred in January 1700. A magnitude 8.0 to 9.0 earthquake happens in this region about every 200 to 500 years.


Editor’s Note: Photographs, downloadable high resolution video and links to YouTube video are available to illustrate this story, and the link to OHELP can be found at the web page of the Cascadia Lifelines Program

Cascadia Lifelines Program downloadable video links. 

Cascadia Lifelines Program viewable links.Interview with Scott Ashford

OSU research lab testing utility poles and brick walls.

Geotechnical Extreme Event Reconnaissance to Tohoku earthquake (Japan), March 26 to April 1, 2011.

College of Engineering

About the OSU College of Engineering: The OSU College of Engineering is among the nation's largest and most productive engineering programs. Since 1999, the college has more than tripled its research expenditures to $37.2 million by emphasizing highly collaborative research that solves global problems. It is a leader in signature research areas, including precision health, clean energy, resilient infrastructure and advanced manufacturing; and targeted strategic areas, including robotics, materials research and clean water.