At 10:17 a.m. on a recent morning, 396,834 students, teachers, administrators and at more than 400 schools across Oregon dropped to the floor clambering under their desks.
The same thing was happening for 65,286 state and local government officials from Portland to Medford.
And then there were the 59,000 or so business employees who took a few minutes out of their day to participate in the record-breaking statewide earthquake drill.
The widespread practice established that Oregonians are not scoffing at the threat of natural disaster.
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In total, it’s estimated that 739,785 Oregonians — or about one-fifth of the state’s population — participated in The Great Oregon Shakeout last Thursday, an annual event at bringing awareness to the real danger that earthquakes pose and training people how to prepare.
For Oregonians, the numbers indicate that the reports of a potentially catastrophic Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake happening in the near future have galvanized the citizens of this state to foster what the Oregon Military Department’s Office of Emergency Management calls a “culture of preparedness.”
According to state geologists, there’s a 37 percent chance that a 7.1 magnitude earthquake or higher will occur in our region within the next 50 years that would destroy homes and buildings, and up end infrastructure such as sewers, electricity and roadways.
“It’s one thing for FEMA or the state, or counties to prepare like this, but we say ‘culture of preparedness’ because it really takes the entire community,” said Cory Grogan, Emergency Management spokesman. “Everybody has to be doing their part for us to effectively be prepared.”
Grogan said “the drill was a huge win.”
And the more people that sign up for it, the more awareness we can create and to help foster that culture of preparedness the state is trying to build.
The Office of Emergency Management is one of several state agencies that joins with the Southern California Earthquake Center and U.S. Geological Survey to put on the event each year.
In Oregon, participation has increased dramatically since the first state drill in 2012, when just 164,909 people participated. Participation in 2019 was up 10% from 668,914 last year, according to the earthquake center.
The drill typically involves three steps — drop, take cover and hold on — and only lasts from around 90 seconds to three minutes at most, simulating the time which an earthquake would shake the ground and structures. Evacuation protocols would also be in place depending on a building’s seismic rating and age. While it seems like an easy concept to grasp, the point is to create muscle memory so in the event of the real earthquake, shock and panic don’t set in.
That’s especially important for Oregon’s youth, and why Grogan and the state emergency agency were elated to see that more than 396,000 students practiced these techniques.
“Oregon is doing a great job, not just at the government level, but the individual and community level as well, in getting more people involved,” Grogan said.
Some state agencies take these drills seriously because they have to be on the front lines of response should a major earthquake strike.
The Oregon Department of Transportation, for example, rigorously practices drop, cover and hold, as well as building evacuation on a regular basis, according to spokesman Don Hamilton.
“Everybody understands that when this earthquake hits, it’s going to be a major job for all emergency service providers and transportation (workers) in the area,” Hamilton said. “It’s critical that we’re available to make sure that emergency supplies and medical assistance can get where it needs to go.”
While one-fifth of Oregonians were ducking for cover last week, researchers at the University of Oregon continued their work to monitor the state’s early earthquake program called ShakeAlert. The system of 120 sensors from Grants Pass to Portland can detect shaking, characterize the quake and in seconds issue an alert to an affected area.
Leland O’Driscoll, ShakeAlert project manager and seismic field technician at the University of Oregon, oversees the state’s program. O’Driscoll explained that the system aims to improve human reaction to shaking caused by earthquakes to prevent injuries and deaths.
“What we’re doing is going from a reaction of, ‘I feel shaking, I should protect myself’ to an advanced notice that says, ‘It will be shaking, now I can calmly and coherently take protective action,’” O’Driscoll said.
For an example, say an earthquake strikes several miles off the Oregon Coast and is detected by ShakeAlert sensors. The Geological Survey could issue a ShakeAlert that city officials in Albany, could use to warn citizens up to 90 seconds before shaking begins.
California’s ShakeAlert program actually went online last week, but O’Driscoll, Oregon needs another year to roll out its own. They’re hoping to bolster their number of sensors from 120 to around 250 spread throughout the Willamette Valley and along the coast, O’Driscoll said.
Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Management and Portland Fire & Rescue recently partnered with ShakeAlert to install 10 sensors at each fire station to provide data in real-time to researchers at the University of Oregon and the Geological Survey.
“The reason we don’t roll it out now is we still find we need to educate the public on what this is,” he said. “We’re continuing to build that sensor network, so it’s functional in Oregon right now but it’s not, in our view, fully capable at eliminating false alerts.”
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Contact Reporter Sam Stites: [email protected] or 971-255-2480.