Art by Michael Byrne

Fuel to the Fire

It's 8 hours after a crippling mega-quake has hit the United States. The residents of Portland are finally fighting back, but fires, fuel shortages, and chaos reign. Part 3 of 5.

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Mar 3 2016, 11:00am

Art by Michael Byrne

This is part three of After the Big One. To experience the first five minutes of the catastrophic quake scientists believe will hit the Pacific Northwest any time now, start here; to follow Portlanders' survival efforts in the wake of disaster, go here.

During the five minutes of the earthquake, standing-wave phenomena known as seiches ripped open the massive petroleum storage tanks of the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub, sending waves of fuel splashing out over land, and then the Willamette River.1 The forces of the earthquake caused the liquid contents of the tank to slosh against their confines in ways the tanks weren't designed to contain, until they tore open like soggy paper cups.

The tanks that form a critical link in Oregon's fuel supply are surrounded by walls, to contain any accidental fuel breach. But, the walls were already compromised by the time the deluge reached them: leaned over into the loose, alluvial soil, a castle wall sunk into a swamp of liquefaction. It didn't take much to start a fire that spread throughout the Hub area, and out across the river. The fire burned with smoke so black and so thick, it could be seen above all the other smaller fires spread out across the city. But if there was anyone who missed the toxic cloud, they will know about it soon. The fire is on its way to them.

+8 Hours

St. Johns is the neighborhood on the tip of the peninsula of North Portland, sticking out in between the Willamette and the Columbia Rivers, as they merge together. The fire that started in the tank farms of the CEI Hub has spread north, crossed the water on a burning slick of fuel, caught the wooded bluffs on fire west of the University of Portland, burned up the hill pushed by a southerly wind, and is raging uncontrolled through the neighborhood.

Fire vehicles are having a hard time getting to St. Johns, blocked by rubble in the streets, abandoned cars, and downed power lines. Additionally, North Portland and the neighborhood of St. Johns are separated from the rest of the city by two trenches: the I-5 freeway that runs north-south, and a railroad trench that cuts diagonally through the middle of the peninsula. Bridges that cross these two inadvertent fortifications have collapsed, making this infrastructure—ordinarily ignored in passing by Portlanders—now unavoidably apparent.

The St. Johns bridge, crossing the Willamette from the Northwest quadrant to the peninsula of North Portland, is surrounded by the fire on all sides. The magnificent, green art deco structure glows orange in the flames against the overcast evening sky, looking like nothing quite so much as a bridge across the river Styx. It would be beautiful, perhaps, if it did not represent the homes of hundreds burning up into the night.

Emergency vehicles finally discover the only way into the conflagration is to cut to the north and then along Columbia Blvd to the west, but this is where liquefaction damage to the roads is the worst. A bulldozer is volunteered by a nearby construction crew, to move sections of a collapsed overpass off the roadway.

The situation is hopeless, and the fire is only getting bigger.

Once they finally get to the fire, firefighting crews are hampered by a lack of water pressure in the fire hydrants, due to leaking mains damaged by the liquefaction. Portland's two new fireboats, with the power to pump water from the river into a hose system onto land, are still trapped behind bridges, unable to get to the peninsula.2

The situation is hopeless, and the fire is only getting bigger. The EOC calls for the evacuation of North and Northeast Portland west of Cesar Chavez Boulevard: a quarter of the city's area.3 The emergency text alert system isn't responding, and without electricity, no one would receive an Emergency Alert System message on TV or radio. BEECNs are the only reliable means of public communication at the moment, and so via amateur two-way radio, the order spreads.

The massive cloud of black smoke darkening the sky over the peninsula is very apparent as our local BEECN hears the call, and we need little convincing. The exodus begins. We walk east and south with whatever emergency supplies we can carry. Some have wheelbarrows, strollers, and wagons, with water and sleeping bags on board. Others have bicycles. Some have nothing.

Many, like me, head southeast to the Rose City Golf Course, just north of where the I-84 freeway trench (now blocked by collapsed overpasses) cuts through the middle of East Portland. People from throughout the evacuated Northeast arrive there by evening, as it has the most open area near any of the Northeast BEECNs.4 There are almost no first responders there, as they are all busy fighting the fire and working on search and rescue operations closer to the river. The neighborhood and its new guests must take care of themselves.

The well-known Portland DIY spirit is subsumed by a much more legendary human spirit of collective care and teamwork. Certainly, there is looting going on in the city—there are too many serious issues for police to spend time guarding sneakers at the mall or electronics at rental stores, and there is always someone hard up enough to think about commodity goods rather than fresh water. But the vast majority of people in the city realize that the lights are not going to come on tomorrow, or even the next day after that. There is more at stake here. The cloud of smoke filling the sky to the northwest, beginning to glow orange from the flames in the darkening twilight, underlies every action with a sense of importance and urgency.

At the golf course, Portlanders begin helping each other hang tarps from the trees to create temporary shelters for the night. I have an old tent, but no rainfly, and I share a tarp with a stranger I meet on the greens. He lives in a neighborhood west of mine, closer to the fire. He didn't wait for the evacuation order, he tells me. He could see flames in the distance, and decided it was time to get the hell east, and he'd figure out where when he got there.

We string up a cover between a pair of cedars using some clothesline, our woven cord joining others from our new neighbors around the stout tree trunks. They are big trees. Not big enough to have been around since the last CSZ quake three hundred years ago—all this land was logged over the last century. But our new cedar friends are big enough to hold all of our tarps up, without so much as a groan from their woven roots.

Before dark, the golf course is transformed into a maze of tents, tarps overhead, people gathered around tables lit with flashlights, sharing news, information, and supplies. Employees from nearby grocery stores are distributing perishable food—it will not keep for long without refrigeration, which departed with the city's electricity.5 Neighbors from the surrounding Roseway neighborhood are cooking on propane grills and distributing blankets. I realize I haven't eaten since breakfast, and I'm starving. This area's homes fared far better than those close to the river, and those with extra lumber, tarps, and rope are helping those with only the clothes on their backs get settled for the night.

A woman from Roseway shows us a video on her cell phone of the tsunami that swept the coast, hours back, only fifteen minutes after the earthquake.6 Shot from a news helicopter, it is wholly terrifying. Entire cities were within the tsunami hazard zone, and were swept away by a wall of water sixty feet high. 650 people on Oregon's coast died in minutes.7 As the water swept out, and then back in again, the remains of the coastal towns were pushed up the Columbia River for miles, clogging the shipping channels with capsized boats, trees, and pieces of buildings, destroying all navigational aids that ships rely on to make the passage over the dangerous channel.8

The woman with the cell phone had WiMax internet service from her house for a few hours after the earthquake and downloaded the video—but then the signal died, as the emergency generators at the antenna site ran through their fuel. Local cable and DSL internet service was down almost immediately, as local wire centers were housed in liquefaction zones.9 After nearly a hundred replays, her phone battery dies as well. We can't help but think of those we know living on the coast, and how despite the destruction around us, we are lucky to be outside the worst.

That night it rains, and we huddle under our self-constructed shelters. The city catches a lucky break, as the massive St. Johns fire is blown north into the wetlands along the Columbia River, and dies out after consuming all that there is to burn in the neighborhood. The air smells like the Pacific, as it often does after a spring rain in Portland. But now it is mixed with an acrid, oily smell, like burning tires and evaporating gasoline: the smell of the state of Oregon's entire fuel supply gone up in smoke.

+1 Day

Twenty-four hours after the earthquake, the St. Johns fire is officially out. Fire crews are returning to search and rescue, while police are coordinating with National Guard units to keep people out of the conflagration zone.10 Everything west of the North Portland railroad cut is gone, and a cordon has been set up a few blocks east at N. Portsmouth Avenue. North Portland residents whose homes are outside the zone are being encouraged to return. I live outside the zone, and so I pack up my tent to head back to my front lawn. My new friend, who shared my rain cover, now lives inside of it. He shrugs his shoulders, keeps the tarp up, and stays put.

The best place for people who still have a home is in those homes (or in front of them, in my case) even without power or water—both of which are down across the entire city.11 But those whose houses just burned from eaves to foundation, along with all of their trees, shrubs, yards, and gardens, are going to need a new place to stay.

As I walk home, I see emergency vehicles stationed at fire stations, BEECNs, and major intersections when not doing search and rescue, distributed across the city in a plan initialized by Unified Command. There has been little progress in clearing roadways blocked by bridges and pavement cracking.12 Abandoned cars are still everywhere, with no resources to tow them. But dispatching units would still be a problem even with functional roads, as now there is a critical gasoline shortage.

Even before the Willamette River fire, it was expected that 80 percent of the petroleum terminals in the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub would be completely destroyed from the shaking and liquefaction alone.13 With the complete elimination of Oregon's single lynchpin of petroleum infrastructure, the state is without fuel for months, even years.14 Fuel is what will run the reconstruction. The electric and water companies need trucks. The trucks need fuel. Bulldozers, diggers, dump trucks, fresh water tankers, food deliveries, emergency generators, and pumps—they all need fuel. At the EOC, Unified Command is organizing the collection of as much fuel as possible from storage tanks, service stations, and any depot that's supply was not lost.15

Constructing a new fuel supply chain is a primary concern. It cannot come by ship: The Columbia River channel has collapsed, filled with underwater slides of sediment disturbed by the earthquake. The Army Corps of Engineers can re-dredge them, but it will take time. The mouth of the Columbia at the Pacific Ocean is filled with tsunami wreckage.16 The massive stone jetties that protect against formation of deadly, shifting sandbars along the river outlet have been pushed aside, like gravel before a broom.17 The mighty hydroelectric dams on the Columbia up river from Portland all survive just fine, but the system of locks that allow shipping to bypass them must be checked by engineers before they can be used.18 For nearly a century, the Columbia has been tamed into an organized machine. But with one slip of the earth's crust, nature begins reclaiming its river.

Rail is not possible either, as lines are buried under landslides, and most railroad bridges are destroyed.19 The facilities at Portland International Airport are mostly intact, but all of its fuel came directly from the CEI Hub, and so it cannot re-fuel any planes that land.20

The best way in is by truck. Redmond Airport, one hundred miles from Portland on the east side of the Cascade Mountain range, is the FEMA designated emergency airport for a Cascadian Subduction Zone event.21 But I-84, Highway 26, and Highway 22—the main routes west—are blocked in countless places by wrecked bridges and landslides across the roadway.22 The Oregon Department of Transportation, working out of the state EOC in Salem, is only beginning to survey the extents of the problem.

The Portland Unified Command focuses on developing a local strategy. Using specialized software called Web EOC, they are taking reports, slowly but surely creating a new map of the city.23 The Unified Command designs routes from the most easily-cleared roads, and assigns priority to those that can be passable soon.

News is relayed to the public via BEECN and loudspeaker. The NETs are helping their communities work together, clearing the streets of debris so repair vehicles can pass, tackling the grassroots tasks so city responders can handle the larger jobs. We all spread the word about conserving food and water, and collect any five-gallon buckets that can be found to construct temporary toilets, to help prevent the spread of disease.24

The rumbling feels like a memory, and for a moment I think I am dreaming of the original earthquake, until I realize I am out in the yard.

+3 Days

At six in the morning on the third day after the quake, the strongest aftershock hits. I, like many, am already outside, sleeping on my front lawn in a tent, as my house is too damaged to occupy. The rumbling feels like a memory, and for a moment I think I am dreaming of the original earthquake, until I realize I am out in the yard.

The shaking is not as strong, and doesn't last for nearly as long as the first earthquake. My house stays where it is, tipped forward off its foundation, like a dog slumped on the rug. But already damaged buildings that have not been stabilized from lack of workers and fuel, continue collapsing, and the rolling sound of catastrophe fills the city again. The most damaged buildings are free of occupants, so further injuries are slight. But more fires ignite. Fire crews consume precious gasoline racing around the city. Fires that are not threatening human life will likely be left to burn.25 I throw on clothes, and run to the BEECN, to see what I can do.

Most hydrants are still not working.26 The Water Bureau teams have been mapping functional pressure tanks and pipes, and the fire boats in the river have now been able to set up hoses to pump river water onshore to trucks. The aftershock drives home the dire nature of the problem: until water of some kind is flowing, Portland is running the risk of another major fire destroying vast sections of the city. City employees from all departments—the Auditor's Office, the Education Department, and even HR employees—are re-tasked by PBEM, and sent out on bicycles, mapping water main leaks and cracks in intersections. The Water Bureau estimates 30 percent of the main breaks are identified, and once the fuel shortage problem is solved, they can start repairing the priority breaks. NETs and other volunteers like myself help firefighters extend the few functional water mains, running thousands of feet of hose down rubble-strewn streets to reach working hydrants.

At the EOC, the Web EOC software shows the constantly-updating map of priority projects across the city, with a few hundred new additions from the last aftershock. National Guard and US Army Corps of Engineers bulldozers, stationed in the area and already at work, are clearing emergency routes across surface streets, avoiding overpasses and bridges.27

One of the major questions the city must answer is where to move all the rubble and debris. The earthquake has generated a total of 10 million tons of debris in Oregon alone, or one million dump truck loads.28 The city's Bureau of Planning and Stability is coordinating debris removal, preparing to use the destroyed fire areas in St. Johns as a temporary dumping ground. But there still isn't any diesel to run the trucks and the loading equipment.

Meanwhile, outside of Portland, the State of Emergency declarations blossomed up the chain of command from the city, to the State, to the President of the United States, all on the very first day of the earthquake.29 With a Presidential declaration, the military can provide equipment and personnel.30 Naval ships stationed in San Diego are on the way.31 A massive vehicle mobilization is converging on the Northwest from all points of the country.32

Inside the Portland EOC, a massive video screen shows the Navy flotilla's progress towards the inundated coast. Another screen shows the progress of the first wave of the FEMA convoy. Supplies from Redmond are on their way over the mountains by truck, but they are moving at a pace of only a few miles an hour, as engineering teams stabilize the roadway ahead of the convoy. The rest of the nation watches, glued to their screens, as the ships sail, and as heavy equipment followed by semi-trucks embark on the most ambitious, accelerated highway building since the Alaska Highway in 1942.33 Here in Portland, without power or signal, we watch nothing, instead picking up shovels to do what we can.

What condition the city will be in by the time these convoys arrive, the staff at the EOC shudders to think. Instead, they busy themselves with the myriads of other smaller problems, clearing the paths for help, when it comes. Now that the earthquake is here, they must buckle down with the training that they have, and do their best. Whether in front of a computer terminal, or carrying jugs of water through the streets, we all do whatever we can, to save our city. And as that infrastructure of the city retreats from us, leaving us with dry faucets, no roads or dial tone, and little in the way of saviors, a new notion of our mortality begins to dawn on us.

We aren't just working together to save our city. We're working together to save ourselves.

Next: Part 4: Poorly Distributed.

Terraform editor Brian Merchant spoke to author Adam Rothstein about this series for Radio Motherboard, which is available on iTunes and all podcast apps.


1. Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, Earthquake Risk Study for Oregon's Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub, 96.

2. Chalmers, Keely. "New Fire Boats to Withstand Possible Mega-Earthquake," KGW, July 16, 2015, retrieved February 29, 2016, http://legacy.kgw.com/story/news/local/2015/07/16/...

3. Department of Homeland Security, Draft Analytical Baseline Study for the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami, 127.

4. Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, "Find a BEECN Site Near You," retrieved February 29, 2016, https://www.portlandoregon.gov/pbem/article/483656 .

5. Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 30.

6. Department of Homeland Security, Draft Analytical Baseline Study for the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami, 26.

7. Wave height estimated based on 2011 Tōhoku tsunami, but will vary depending on coastline conditions. Department of Homeland Security, Draft Analytical Baseline Study for the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami, 34.

8. Department of Homeland Security, Draft Analytical Baseline Study for the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami, 115.

9. Department of Homeland Security, Draft Analytical Baseline Study for the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami, 144.

10. City of Portland, Earthquake Response Appendix, 41.

11. Ibid.

12. Oregon Department of Transportation, Oregon Highways Seismic Plus Report, 40.

13. Department of Homeland Security, Draft Analytical Baseline Study for the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami, 68.

14. Ibid.

15. State Ops Plan, 6-22.

16. DOGAMI CEI Hub Report, 95.

17. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 131.

18. Ibid.

19. Department of Homeland Security, Draft Analytical Baseline Study for the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami, 189; Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 125.

20. Department of Homeland Security, Draft Analytical Baseline Study for the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami, 105; Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, Earthquake Risk Study for Oregon's Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub, 9.

21. Oregon Department of Transportation, Oregon Highways Seismic Plus Report, 54; Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 6-11.

22. Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 141; Oregon Department of Transportation, Oregon Highways Seismic Plus Report, 65.

23. Dan Douthit inteview, November 2015.

24. https://www.portlandoregon.gov/pbem/56765

25. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 4-6.

26. Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 208.

27. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 6-20.

28. Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 40

29. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 4-2.

30. If you are wondering about Posse Commitatus, Title 10 stipulates that the military can provide support in times of emergency, via tasks dictated by FEMA, and carried out under the orders of the US Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). This is all legal and constitutional, according to current doctrine and legal interpretations. Posse Commitatus means they just cannot do any law enforcement. However, the National Guard, under the command of the State governor, can do law enforcement. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 7-2.

31. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 6-22.

32. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 6-4

33. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 6-7.