Preparing for nature’s worst, S11E8

s11 e8


What is Oregon doing to prepare for earthquakes, tsunamis, and wildfire? Researchers at Oregon State University are working with the state Legislature to help them make informed decisions about how to prepare for natural hazards.

Season number
Season 11
Episode number

[MUSIC: “A Song for Japan,” written by Steven Verhelst, performed by Duncan Robertson, licensed under CC by 3.0.]

RACHEL ROBERTSON: The music you are hearing is “A Song for Japan” — dedicated to the victims and survivors of the devastating earthquake on March 11, 2011. It’s a song of grief, but also of resilience.

The 9.1 quake shook the world – it was so strong that the Earth shifted on its axis. A different kind of shift happened when people realized the extent of the infrastructure damage to a country that was considered a world leader in earthquake and tsunami preparedness.

AP NEWS REPORTER: Ibaraki Airport was shaken violently. Part of the ceiling of the terminal building fell.

ROBERTSON: Within 30 minutes, a tsunami hit the coast. From higher ground, bystanders watched in horror as 30-foot waves poured over sea walls causing unbelievable destruction.

[AUDIO of tsunami]

ROBERTSON: Houses, cars, utility poles … everything … toppled by the force of the water and washed away to who-knows-where. The images were shocking. Frightening. Around 20,000 people died or went missing. 450,000 people became homeless.

Millions of households were without power or water. The loss of power was catastrophic. Three nuclear reactors overheated when the backup generators were taken out by a tsunami, causing a nuclear disaster, second only to Chernobyl.

The world saw, and paid attention.

[MUSIC: “A Song for Japan,” written by Steven Verhelst, performed by Duncan Robertson, licensed under CC by 3.0.]

People in Oregon realized we would likely suffer similar impacts from a combined earthquake and tsunami. That was no doubt on the minds of Oregon representatives when just a month later they passed House Resolution 3. A result of that resolution was the Oregon Resilience Plan, which guides legislation in hopes that we will be more prepared for a Cascadia Subduction Zone event.

I'm your host, Rachel Robertson, and in this episode, you will hear about what researchers at Oregon State University are doing to help Oregon prepare for hazards like earthquakes, tsunamis, and wildfire.

[MUSIC: “The Ether Bunny,” by Eyes Closed Audio, licensed under CC by 3.0]

ROBERTSON: From the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, this is Engineering Out Loud.

For the first part of this episode, I talked to the Dean of the College of Engineering who was one of the many volunteers who helped guide the Oregon Resilience Plan.

During his career as a researcher, Kearney Dean of Engineering, Scott Ashford, did groundbreaking research in geotechnical engineering for earthquake hazards — I mean literally, ground breaking.

ASHFORD: My specialty is using explosives to induce liquefaction in the ground and then carry out full scale testing. And that was super fun. Great, great part of my career. Working with Caltrans, we actually had the opportunity to, out at Treasure Island, to use explosives to liquify the ground several times and do great, big pile foundation load tests while the ground was liquified. And it was the first time anybody had ever done it. It was super exciting and we actually were able to go all over the world and repeat those tests in different types of soils.

ROBERTSON: Caltrans is the California Department of Transportation, and that research was conducted at University of California, San Diego where he was a professor. In 2007, Scott came to Oregon State to take on the role of school head for the School of Civil and Construction Engineering. And then, in 2014, he was named dean of the college, which opened up new opportunities for him.

ASHFORD: So, in my career, I made a shift from really focusing on the research to realizing I could probably have a bigger impact by focusing on policy. I think my research background gave me the credentials for that, but then my role allowed me to have, I think, a bigger role in public policy. And a lot of that was really service to the state of Oregon on helping develop policies for really mitigating the effects of the upcoming, Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake.

ROBERTSON: One of his roles was serving as a member of the advisory panel for the Oregon Resilience Plan. Even though Scott was well aware of the consequences of an earthquake, the experience on the committee gave him a different perspective.

Three faculty members are having a conversation

Scott Ashford, Kearney Dean of Engineering, speaks with Oregon State University researchers Meagan Wengrove, assistant professor of coastal and ocean engineering, and Erica Fischer, assistant professor of structural engineering. Photo by Johanna Carson.

ASHFORD: You know, one of the things we got to do was really talk with each one of the groups, developing the different chapters of the plan. And we had talked with the group made up of utilities that are, are in charge of getting electricity, right, to the people. And there were some parts of the state that were going to be without power for months. And even in the Willamette Valley, there's going to be communities without power for weeks. Right? So, OK, we saw that. The very next group to come in was the banking group. Right? And the charge for banks is that they will have money available within 72 hours of some sort of natural disaster. And they were quite confident that that was going to happen because that's what they, that's what's in their, you know, their charge. And yet we knew there was going to be no power to these banks for weeks, in some places, months. And so, I just, that, that contrast between actually two subsequent chapters in the book had such an impact on me and really understanding the interdependence of different lifelines. And it's not just banking and power, but, you know, it's, it's water and sewer and the train, you know, the roads. Right? But it was such an eye opener. It was such a great example of the importance of these different groups working together.

ROBERTSON: One-hundred and fifty volunteers contributed to the report, including experts in energy, business, transportation, communication, water and wastewater systems. And they ended up with a plan that maps Oregon’s policy and investment priorities for the next 50 years. But then what?

ASHFORD: The challenge with the Oregon Resilience Plan was that there were 140 different recommendations. And for the state government, you know, the governor's office, the legislature, where do you start with 140 recommendations from a group that you commissioned and that are all probably needed, they're all good ideas.

ROBERTSON: So, what happened next is that the legislature created a task force for the implementation of the plan, and Scott was asked to chair that task force. They boiled down the list to 10 of their highest recommendations. And then the legislature starting taking action.

ASHFORD: We recommended that the state establish a resilience officer that reported directly to the governor and really had oversight of all the different agencies. It was very important not to have the resilience officers sit inside an agency because they would not then have really clout to get anything done with the other agencies. So, resilience officer reporting directly to the governor — we got that in.

ROBERTSON: Another recommendation that was really important to him was funding to speed up the process of improving K-12 school buildings to be more structurally resilient.

ASHFORD: It would take decades and decades at the rate we were going to get all the schools retrofitted. And so, with the recommendations from the task force the state legislature passed bonding to allow that work to happen, actually right away and get it done to improve the resilience of those schools.

ROBERTSON: Scott is also proud that they were able to bring awareness to the critical role of the Oregon Department of Transportation, and start investing in a resilient transportation system.

[MUSIC: “Bach Cello Suite No. 1, Prelude,” by Brooklyn Classical, licensed through]

ASHFORD: I mean, if you look at that Cascadia subduction zone, there's many parts of I5 that become impassable. And the main north-south route through Oregon becomes Highway 97, which is over in central Oregon. And, everything depends on transportation, you know, even getting the repair crews out to bring back electricity, and water, and natural gas to folks, depends on the transportation system. You know, having a lifeline route to the coast. They get hit with the double whammy, right. Of a magnitude nine earthquake followed by tsunami, and most of the routes to the coast become impassable. And you gotta be able to get relief supplies to the coast. So, highlighting that importance of the transportation system.

ROBERTSON: Scott’s experience with the Oregon Resilience Plan sparked an idea to create a research program focused on projects to mitigate damage to infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest. The Cascadia Lifelines Program is funded by utility companies and organizations like the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Port of Portland.

ASHFORD: And I think the importance there is that it's an opportunity for them to all come to the table. And invest in common projects that helps everybody. And I think one of the one of the coolest projects that we did, and I think one of the most impactful to the public — it's an app, it's called, O-HELP

ROBERTSON: O-HELP stands for Oregon Hazard Explorer for Lifelines Program, and it gives detailed information about earthquake and tsunami risks for any spot in Oregon. It was designed for engineers, planners, geologists, or anyone helping the state prepare for an earthquake.

ASHFORD: For lifeline providers, they have such distributed systems that the ability to quickly look at that, really made a real difference for them. It’s also free and available to everybody, so everybody can use it.

ROBERTSON: O-HELP was the subject of an earlier “Engineering Out Loud” episode called “Partners preparing for the Big One.” You can listen to that one to find out more.

[MUSIC: “Thoughts in Motion,” by Tristan Barton, licensed through]

I want to shift to another project which is a new building at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. Because of his expertise, Scott was looped in on the initial planning for the Marine Studies Building. When the building was proposed, there was a backlash from people who didn’t want Oregon State to build in a tsunami zone.

ASHFORD: I think that initially when the building was conceived, I'm not sure that the, the seismic hazards were totally addressed. And I think not taken maybe as seriously as warranted, at least in some of the, those initial communications. And so, there was quite a bit of controversy, especially with, I think, how the university maybe started out with the project.

ROBERTSON: In response to the controversy, then university president, Ed Ray took a pause in the planning to consult with several people and asked for a comprehensive internal and third-party assessments of potential building sites. Based on the results, the university decided to build the Marine Studies Building on the Hatfield Marine Science Center campus which is in the tsunami zone. But student housing would be located on higher ground. Both buildings would be designed, engineered and constructed to withstand a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, and the Marine Studies Building to withstand a resulting tsunami and serve as a vertical evacuation site.

ASHFORD: I was very happy to hear that. The challenge, for me, was that the university, right, has now made these commitments to the public. But everybody doing their job at the university individually — the lack of interdependence, but people kind of doing their work in different silos. My concern was is that we were not going to be able to fulfill the university's commitments to the public, you know, that we weren't going to be able to fulfill those, our, our principles. Not because somebody didn't want to do it, but it just wasn't their job at the time.

And so, I went to the provost, I went to the president. I said you have to have an oversight committee to really provide that, that high level view, to make sure that as a university fulfilling the commitments that we've made. And we also have to have a technical advisory panel that is going to provide that technical oversight to make sure that we are doing what we set out to do. For me, at the time I was kind of, I guess I was naive because when I suggested the oversight committee, I didn't realize I would walk out of that meeting, being now the chair of the oversight committee. And I wasn't really expecting that, but I'm glad. And I think that we did, I think, the Marine Studies Building is now living up to be a model structure.

ROBERTSON: The uniqueness of this project is highlighted in a recent New York Times article that pointed out it is one of only two structures in the Pacific Northwest, and the only one in Oregon, that can serve as a vertical evacuation platform. It has supplies on the rooftop that can support 920 people for two days. There are three ways to access the roof: an elevator that can operate on emergency power, an interior staircase, and an external ramp. To withstand multiple hazards — liquefaction, tsunami, strong shaking, and lateral spreading — the ground was stabilized using a deep-soil mixing technique in which augers drilled 100 feet below ground and pulled out the soil, replacing it with cement grout.

ASHFORD: The techniques that we used, are used individually in a number of places. You know, mitigating liquefaction through ground improvement, it's used all over the world successfully. The type of design where you, you look at preventing progressive collapse, very common technique that is used. The ramp, really, that's pretty basic construction, but going with a ramp instead of a stairway or something that's a common technique. But I think putting them all together in a facility with all these hazards and having it used on a daily basis, I think that's unique aspect of this project.

ROBERTSON: There are people who make the argument that it does not make sense to have new construction on the coast given the risk an earthquake and tsunami. But the people who live there are not going to leave, so having a vertical evacuation structure is of value to the community who will likely have just 20 minutes to get to higher ground.

[MUSIC: “A Song for Japan,” written by Steven Verhelst, performed by Duncan Robertson, licensed under CC by 3.0.]

ASHFORD: The coast is … it's a key part of Oregon. I mean, people have their livelihoods over there. It's part of our tourism industry. And so, for me, it's important that we don't shut down the coast, but we approach buildings like this, we approach how we work at the coast — we approach it with open eyes. We understand the earthquake risk. We understand the tsunami risk. At Hatfield twice a year, they practice tsunami evacuations. You put some facilities, right? Critical facilities, hospitals, our dormitories, up on the hill. But you got to be able to allow people to, to work on the coast. I love going to the Oregon coast. I have no problem being in the tsunami inundation zone because I know the odds are on a given day — it won't happen — and I take the precaution of knowing where to go, you know, in that chance that it does. Avoiding all risk is something that I don't think we can do as a society. I think we have to understand the risk and then make informed decisions on how to deal with it.

ROBERTSON: Understanding the risk of natural hazards and finding solutions is one role of research. At Oregon State, we have an advantage for interdisciplinary research projects as one of just three universities in the nation with all four grant designations (land, sea, sun, and space).

ASHFORD: Collaboration is something that we're known for at Oregon State. If you do something in isolation, it's just not going to be as useful as if you have a, you know, it's a larger project, but you have a larger group addressing different aspects of that problem. You're much more likely to come up with a solution that you can implement, right? And is going to be able to, to be used by society. Having all those people work together, breaking down those barriers. I mean, I think that's where the future is for us. And I think that's how we can really develop solutions for society.

ROBERTSON: Wildfire is another pressing issue in Oregon where collaboration is helping to find the best solutions. Consider a group that includes perspectives from the logging industry, conservation organizations, fire fighters, local tribes, home builders, farmers, and Oregon State faculty in engineering, forestry, and natural resources.

[MUSIC: Finish, Remember, Begin Again,” by Dear Gravity, licensed through]

The group was formed to support the implementation Oregon’s omnibus wildfire bill, Senate Bill 762, that was adopted in August 2021 on the heels of the worst fire seasons we’ve experienced in recent memory.

ERICA FISCHER: SB 762 is possibly one of the most progressive wildfire legislative efforts in the country right now. And the public probably doesn't know much about it. And it's going to impact the public greatly when it's rolled out and actually enacted.

ROBERTSON: That’s Erica Fischer, assistant professor of civil engineering, who was on an earlier episode this season talking about her research related to wildfires. She, along with colleagues in the College of Forestry, are behind the scenes to implement the bill. They are advising the Oregon Department of Forestry as they put together a recommendation for the Board of Forestry on where mitigation actions would be most effective.

FISCHER: We're, like, deep in the trenches here, reading all of these peer reviewed articles, understanding the nuances of how risk is calculated and kind of the bigger picture of all of these decisions. So that's our role is to provide that science input.

ROBERTSON: She is working with Chris Dunn and Mindy Crandall, both assistant professors in the College of Forestry. Each has a different expertise that they are bringing to the task set out for them by the Oregon Department of Forestry.

CHRIS DUNN: They requested Oregon State University to really lead the analytical process. And that included the development of a wildfire risk assessment, the defining and mapping of the wildland urban interface across all lands in Oregon, and then, as well, mapping the social vulnerability and economic distress of our communities, to help inform many of our mitigation actions that span from the wildlands into the individual home. And it certainly gets into that built environment. And because of those requirements, we recognize the need to reach broadly into multiple disciplines.

ROBERTSON: That’s Chris. His area of expertise is in wildfire risk assessment and mitigation, and Mindy Crandall is working in policy and economics of rural Oregonians. Erica is bringing the perspective of a civil engineer.

FISCHER: I've watched and been a part of a similar efforts for earthquakes and tsunamis and just been informed on what's happening with floods and hurricanes around the country. And those efforts have really been led by civil engineers. Because we're looking at protecting the communities, we're looking at what are the impacts and retrofits that we'll have to do within the community itself. Providing that perspective of, we don't have to reinvent the wheel. This has been done before for other hazards and providing some perspective on what worked and maybe what didn't work when this is trying to be implemented for, for these other hazards around the country.

ROBERTSON: Erica, Chris, and Mindy are also committed to informing the public about the hazards of wildfire and what Oregon is doing.

DUNN: What we really are seeing a need for is changing public perception and understanding. The policies are largely there, to do what we need to do. The solutions to get us over the hump, if you will, of the challenges that we're facing are broad and not necessarily accepted or well understood and contentious at times. And so, working in this environment allows some of that information from the science community to, to bubble up and, and educate the broader public.

FISCHER: I would agree, I, I think SB 762 does a really, really great job at addressing a lot of gaps that Oregon has with regards to policies on mitigation within the community. And even as far as prioritizing financial and, and other types of resources for socially vulnerable communities for our critical infrastructures, such as hospitals and emergency facilities. I think the bill is fantastic in that way. And those would be the big gaps in policy, but in order to create policy, to actually help people, people have to buy in. You know, SB 762 is going to be enacted and, and people are going to have to adhere to these policies.

And it'll take probably a few years for Oregonians to start changing their perspectives. This is a hazard just like an earthquake or flood or hurricane or tsunami, it's going to impact communities and it's going to come and we can't stop it from coming. That, I think, is the biggest misconception.

ROBERTSON: In a commentary that Erica, Chris, and Mindy wrote together for the Oregon Capital Chronical, they describe how the practice of wildfire suppression along with climate change have contributed to intense annual fire seasons. A new report from the United Nations makes the same point, and urges governments to focus their resources to fire risk reduction and preparedness. We are fortunate in Oregon that our government has already taken steps to do that, the next step is getting the public on board.

DUNN: We tend to have this perspective that segregates on an industrial perspective of forestry versus a conservation perspective of forestry and they espouse different solutions to the problem. And one is, we just need to heavily manage the forest and we'll be fine. And the other is, we just need to leave the forest alone and we'll be fine, if you will. And neither of those perspectives are really addressing the full suite of the problem. You know, there there's a role for each of them in different parts of the landscape in different components to addressing this mitigation need. And so, if the public could understand that, then I think we'd be in a better position to move forward with real mitigation that protects Oregonians as best as we can.

ROBERTSON: We have a lot of heavy stuff to deal with as we adapt to a world that is changing, and it’s comforting for me to know more about how people from different organizations and perspectives are working together to find a path forward as we face new hazards.

FISCHER: We can live in these beautiful places and you can leave your 200-year-old oak tree up on your property. You don't have to cut down all of your trees. However, if you decide not to mitigate on your land, in your home, you are putting your neighbor at risk and vice versa. And so, it's more than just, I did my work and I did my share and therefore I'm okay. Or on the flip side of, I don't want to engage in this. Your actions are really impacting your neighbor and this, this is true of every single disaster. And I think as civil engineers, we've kind come to this whole community resilience framework and looking at communities as these systems.

[MUSIC: “A Song for Japan,” written by Steven Verhelst, performed by Duncan Robertson, licensed under CC by 3.0.]

And in wildfires, it's just at another level. If your neighbor's home is on fire, that puts you at incredible risk for something on your property to catch fire and cause your home to catch fire. And so, it's going to take the full community and it's really going to take neighbors working together. But that means that we get to still live in these incredibly beautiful places all over Oregon, and we can do so without cutting down all the trees on our property.

ROBERTSON: If you want to learn more about natural hazards in Oregon, what the state is doing, and how to prepare, I’ve collected some links for you that you can find on our website at

[MUSIC: “Bach Cello Suite No. 1, Prelude,” by Brooklyn Classical, licensed through]

This episode is the last in our season on engineering for natural hazards. It was produced by me with audio help from Will Havnaer and the support whole podcast team: Majeed Badizadegan, Johanna Carson, Steve Frandzel, Keith Hautala, Steven Nguyen, Joseph Noonan, Chris Palmer, and Owen Perry. Our intro music is, “The Ether Bunny” by Eyes Closed Audio.

I’d also like to recognize our colleagues across the street in the Faculty Media Center where we have returned to make audio recordings. Many thanks to Amy Hunter and Ed Ostrander who have helped us get quality recordings while staying remote from each other.

ASHFORD: Where are you at? Are you like right next door?

ROBERTSON: In a booth next door.


ROBERTSON: Um. OK. This is our first time doing this. So ...

ASHFORD: I’m excited.

ROBERTSON: It looks kind of cool. You are, like, all in black. You got a black background there. It looks funky.

ASHFORD: Yeah, I know I just wish the camera was a little bit better angle.

ROBERTSON: Yeah, that’s OK. (laughs) That’s OK.