Climate is the Disaster


* *

Dangers range from earthquakes to rising seas in Oregon

Nothing says death and destruction like climate change.

Actually, for most of us the effects of climate change seem like something that will happen in the distant future, a tragedy for our grandchildren but not us. If we are going to think about planetary annihilation and devastation, we focus on Sharknado-like scenarios of wild hurricanes and tsunamis. And here in Oregon we tend to not to think about catastrophic natural disasters at all — it seems like earthquakes, tsunamis and deadly floods happen to other people, in other places.

But scientists know that the Northwest is going to be the site of a huge earthquake, maybe tomorrow, maybe in 50 years, thanks to the nearby Cascadia Subduction Zone. And the 2011 quake in Japan showed us a tsunami also looms on our horizon. Scientists know that here in Oregon climate change means sea levels are rising and flooding will grow worse in some areas, as will soil erosion, while other areas will hurt for water. The changes won’t be as swift as a tsunami, but they will come.

Resilience is the keyword these days, along with adaptation, rather than sustainability as communities realize even with massive changes to our fossil fuel use, we still have to pay the climate change piper for our carbon emissions of the past. It’s less about mitigating climate change and more about being resilient to its effects.

Disaster preparedness experts in Oregon try to get homeowners and cities prepared for the looming threats of shaking earth and giant waves — to be more disaster resilient. But not only is it difficult to persuade the complacent that these things are coming, the experts in disasters aren’t always in communication with the climate scientists who also warn of looming change, albeit a more slow, insidious change. Many threats could be best approached by planning collaboratively for both climate change and disasters, and some of them could be lessened by decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Think outside the fossil fuel box

The University of Oregon’s Oregon Partnership for Disaster Resilience provides natural hazard planning assistance to communities throughout Oregon and is trying to increase the collaboration between climate and disaster experts. Josh Bruce, the interim director of OPDR uses the example of an aging critical energy infrastructure (CEI) hub near Portland as demonstration of the need for conversation between planners.

A state report on Oregon’s earthquake risk says this CEI hub is built on shaky ground. The hub covers a six-mile stretch on the lower Willamette River between the south tip of Sauvie Island and the Fremont Bridge, and it is a fossil fuel nexus for the entire state.

The CEI hub houses all of Oregon’s major liquid fuel port terminals, liquid fuel transmission pipelines and transfer stations, natural gas transmission pipelines and a liquefied natural gas storage facility as well as high-voltage electric substations and transmission lines. Some of the facilities there have infrastructure that’s 100 years old, and parts of it are built on soils that will undergo liquefaction — when saturated sand softens and loses strength during the ground shaking of a strong earthquake. The report, whose lead author is Yumei Wang, a geotechnical engineer with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI), says that the “energy sector is not prepared for a catastrophic Cascadia earthquake.”

In other words, oil and gas pipelines will burst, power stations will go down and we will be left without gas for cars and power for homes and businesses. This will cost Oregonians millions of dollars and potentially thousands of lives.

Talk to the hazards people, Bruce says, and the reaction is, “It’s vulnerable and we need to fix it.”

But Bruce argues that we need to take the long view — a better strategy is to decommission the infrastructure, disperse it and wean ourselves off fossil fuels. He says the climate change questions are the ones that don’t get asked by natural hazards people.

“These two worlds are not mixing the way they need to,” says Matt McRae, a climate and energy analyst with the city of Eugene. He says Eugene is working to implement a pilot project that will tie the two together in a way that “allows us to ask these elephant in the room questions.” Eugene has begun an “all hazards vulnerability assessment” that will reflect vulnerabilities to climate change, rising energy prices and other natural hazards.

Climate is not the question

Climate change is here, it’s getting worse and it’s causing problems. While scientists may talk about climate change in terms of “projections,” it’s not because they question whether it’s happening, it’s because they are still understanding just how much change, when and where.

Philip Mote is the director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute in Corvallis, and he was one of the lead authors of the snow and ice section of the 2007 fourth assessment report by the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He says projected future temperatures could be an increase of only two degrees, if we start to change the way we use fossil fuels, or “eight and half degrees if we continue to burn fossil fuels pell-mell.”

Mote says, “It’s not too hard to understand that if the climate is warming — and we know that it is — that there are responses in things that we can measure.” He says 70 percent of the West’s water starts as snowmelt, and scientists are seeing peak spring snowmelt and runoff coming earlier, the amount of snow on the ground is decreasing and the periods of low water flows are showing even less water. “All these things can be linked to warming.”

Climate models show we will have drier summers, and Mote points out that a lot of agriculture in the Willamette Valley relies on rainfall, so this creates challenges for irrigation, and less water creates challenges for utilities that supply drinking water. Add into the mix the increased risk of wildfires in western Oregon and insect infestations in trees from the warming temperatures.

And while some places will be drier and less prone to flooding, others, like those along the mainstem of the Willamette River, will increase in flood risk during the warm winter storms, which not only bring rain but also melt snow.

Bruce points to the recent massive flooding in Colorado as an example of increasing risk in an era of climate change. “Fires came through and wiped out vegetation, and then you have these strong, outside-the-norm, rain events.” This exacerbates potential for flooding, Bruce says. And if Oregon faces more wildfires in summer followed by high precipitation in winter, we too could be seeing these outside-the-norm floods.

Looking to the coast, Mote says that global sea levels rose 8 or 9 inches in the 20th century. In the Northwest, the frequency of large waves has increased, though according to Mote, it’s not yet clear if that increase is linked to other changes.

What is clear is that the larger waves cause increased coastal erosion and the ocean is getting higher, which affects communities, facilities and homeowners along the coast who are at risk of sliding into the sea.

Disaster prepared

McRae says that the work of Josh Bruce and Mike Howard at the OPDR is on the front lines of bringing together the two worlds of adapting for climate change and preparing for disasters. Bruce says that in view of the Cascadia earthquake to come, as well as things like more severe climate change-induced storms and sea level rise, “a 72-hour disaster preparedness kit doesn’t cut it any more.” Government-recommended disaster preparedness kits contain food, water, medical supplies, flashlights, sanitation and other supplies to use in the event of a natural hazard cutting off power and transportation.

Bruce says instead of being out of water for days, imagine being out of water and power for weeks. “Thinking about personal preparedness becomes a lifestyle choice.” For example, having a cargo bike (see sidebar) becomes an element of disaster preparedness. “It’s not a bag you stock up anymore.”

He says that because Lane County’s natural disasters have been relatively minor — it’s rare that a storm leaves us without power for more than a few hours — it can be hard to get people to prepare for a dramatic disaster like an earthquake, let alone climate change.

Oregon may seem quiet when it comes to natural hazards, but the silence is deceptive. Bruce says he places natural hazards in two categories: First are those on a chronic, annual basis such as floods, wildfire, winter storms and windstorms. These chronic hazard events sometimes rise to the level of a disaster, he says.

Then there are catastrophic events. “The obvious one we are most concerned about is the Cascadia subduction earthquake and the subsequent tsunami event that will follow,” he says. Geological records show that the Cascadia Subduction Zone produces magnitude 8.0 earthquakes about once every 250 years and magnitude 9.0 every 500. The last mega-earthquake in Oregon happened in 1700, according to geological and historical records, and even Native American legends.

According to the DOGAMI report, the Cascadia earthquake could be as large as a magnitude 9.2, “which would shake a substantial portion of the Pacific Northwest and create a tsunami that would flood low-lying coastal areas.” The report says a magnitude 8.0 or higher quake “would likely result in thousands of fatalities and widespread, devastating damage throughout western Oregon.”

Bruce says not only does Oregon face tsunami damage the way Japan did, but also we are far less prepared for the earthquake damage because we have not had a history of quakes that take out old buildings and instill a culture of preparedness. “So much of our infrastructure is built so people will survive,” Howard adds, “but not so it will stay up.”

At the intersection of climate and disaster

In addition to fostering conversations between those who are modeling climate change and those who are predicting disaster, sometimes OPDR finds that conversations need to happen within a community itself. Bruce tells the story of how the city and Lane County had planned to use the UO’s Mac Court as a place to house citizens in an emergency, but they hadn’t checked as to where the school itself was planning to put its students in an emergency. That place also happened to be Mac Court. “There are a lot of assumptions that get made,” Bruce says.

McRae says that Eugene is more collaborative than most communities and is unique in that its “Community Climate and Energy Action Plan” takes into account climate, natural hazards and energy as it explores community resilience.

Coastal communities might have disaster experts coming in one day to talk about how to plan for inundation from tsunamis. Then another day climate change experts say as oceans continue to rise, coastal communities need to plan for the bigger waves and higher seas. If the natural disaster experts are in dialogue with the climate change experts than communities from the coast to the valley can put into place changes that help them to be resilient from both types of disasters, whether that’s by building higher up from the ocean or river or moving critical infrastructure like hospitals away from flood and tsunami zones.

While Lane County has seen high waters in the past, climate change means there will be a diversity of challenges, including something we are less prepared for — extreme heat in the summers. “All of these challenges are big challenges,” Bruce says, “and we need to break down our traditional styles of doing business. Multiple strategies are really important.”

In addition to the pipelines and fossil fuel infrastructure Oregon already has in place, the state has also been dealing with companies looking to export coal, liquefied natural gas and oil. This raises the potential of disasters in the near future — oil and coal spills into the Columbia River for example — but it also raises the question of long-term climate change related problems.

“From my perspective, those are really interesting and complex policy problems,” Bruce says, “dealing with job creation, exacerbating global warming and placing those port facilities at risk.” For example, port facilities are now up against sea level rise, larger waves and tsunamis and they need to prepare for those problems.

So you have a port facility whose fossil fuel export creates the climate change that causes the rising oceans. “Are those two things compatible? Is that successful adaptation?” Bruce asks. “I’m going to say hell no.”

For more on the work of the Oregon Partnership for Disaster Resilience go to and for Eugene’s climate and energy plan go to

Article from the Eugene Weekly | October 24, 2013 – 1:00am
By Camilla Mortensen

Eugene Government: Council rethinks free parking

With a stubborn budget problem looming, councilors indicate that they may not renew the downtown perk

By Edward Russo, The Register-Guard

The City Council on Monday night took no action, but some councilors indicated they may not support an extension of the city’s free on-street parking program early next year.

The city has a stubborn budget problem, and some councilors said requiring people who park in a 12-square-block area of downtown to once again dig into their pockets to feed meters would generate additional money for city coffers. The councilors made their comments after hearing a report from the city’s parking manager, who said surveys of downtown businesses and visitors contain a mixed message about the effectiveness of free parking in helping to revitalize the city center.

Councilor George Brown, who owns The Kiva, a downtown grocery store, said he’s interested in ending the gratis parking and having parking fee proceeds directed to the city’s general fund, which pays for police, fire, library and other city services.

Brown said the knowledge that the parking fees could be used in that way “would take away some of the pain” of paying to park.

At the council’s direction, the city three years ago began the free, two-hour curbside parking. The council majority hoped the free parking zone would help local businesses and contribute to a revived downtown.

Motorists generally have been pleased about not digging into their pockets or purses for change to feed meters in the area bounded by Seventh Avenue on the north, 11th Avenue on the south, Willamette Street on the east and Lincoln Street on the west. Parking meters remain in the rest of downtown and other parts of the city.

Any decision related to parking will likely be part of the city’s budget discussions, which will take place over the next several months. Parking Manager Jeff Petry told councilors he will visit with them on the topic at a yet-to-be determined date.

The decision to remove the 288 parking meters has meant the city is forgoing about $290,000 a year from the amount collected from meters throughout the downtown and midtown areas, Petry said.

The free parking was to last two years, but city officials have extended it four times, with the current exemption period scheduled to end on Jan. 15, 2014.

Two reports about the free parking program have been conducted in the last two years.

The latest, completed in June by the Community Planning Workshop (CPW) at the University of Oregon, used a survey of downtown businesses and parking motorists that was conducted by Downtown Eugene Inc., the area’s property owners and business association.

The report contained conflicting perspectives on how well free parking is working, Petry said. Motorists like the ability to park for free and they think it helps downtown, the report said.

Report >>  SEARCHING FOR A SPACE: An Analysis of Eugene’s Free Parking Policy

However, business owners are skeptical.

In a survey that drew 62 responses from downtown merchants, several said employees are occupying the curbside spaces instead of customers, and firms that depend on parking are not seeing “the intended impacts of the program in terms of increased revenues or patronage volumes.”

The report also said more motorists are parking in the free-parking blocks than in the blocks with meters. Since the city conducted the last parking count in 2011, parking occupancy rates in the 12-block area increased by about 14 percent, the report said.

North-central Councilor Mike Clark, who was instrumental in getting the free parking started, said he “barely knew what to say” about other councilors who apparently want to do away with free parking.

Free parking by itself was not the savior of downtown, he said. But with other factors, such as downtown redevelopment and improved law enforcement, free parking has contributed to a more lively city center, he said.

He noted that 54 percent of the surveyed motorists said they would come downtown less often if they had to plug meters.

“I really don’t know what my colleagues are thinking,” Clark said.