Art: Rebekka Dunlap

Poorly Distributed

Four days in wake of the megaquake, and society begins to collapse. People struggle to stay hopeful, fed, and organized, but desperation is setting in. Part 4 of 5.

|
Mar 3 2016, 4:00pm

Art: Rebekka Dunlap

This is part four of our reported science fiction, After the Big One. To experience the entire catastrophic quake scientists believe will "soon" hit the Pacific Northwest, start here.


+4 Days

Four days after the quake, Portland's is a city separated from the world. It has been four days since anything entered or left the metro area. Nothing has been produced, nothing has been delivered, nothing has been shipped. The city has only consumed. It drinks what water and food it has, searching among its urban possessions for materials from which to build shelter, organizes its dwindling and damaged resources as economically as possible. But like a fasting body, the city is consuming itself. And its citizens, in this one respect a microcosm of their metropolis, hungrily do the same.

Roads, rails, and river have all been rendered impassible by damage. The electricity is off, and the water, sewer, and gas systems are also non-functional. There is no source of gasoline, and the ability to begin repairing infrastructure locally has been hampered by a statewide fuel shortage. A national effort is underway to get supplies to the damaged Pacific Northwest. But residents in Portland, who have little to do but wait in their crushed city for help for arrive, are getting worried that it might be too little, too late. Though the aftershocks are diminishing in strength and frequency, each one represents another blow to the fortitude of the city. Can the city be rebuilt? Or has its plug been pulled, and it will soon dwindle away to nothing, like a fading image on a TV screen?

As bad as the resource situation may be, this is still our home. Most houses are still intact. And even if they are not, we want to rebuild, as soon as we can get the materials to do so. I am volunteering at a Basic Earthquake Emergency Communication Node (BEECN) in North Portland, and I'm among the first to see the arrival of a truck carrying potable water for distribution. After filling up at a Water Bureau facility farther east, it trucked this load into the city for distribution. This BEECN has been designated as a Community Point of Distribution, or C-POD.1 All supplies that will be distributed to the public will come through a point like this.

Word of the truck's arrival spreads quickly, and neighbors run to get water, with any container they can carry. Even with a limit of two gallons per person, the truck is quickly emptied. The crowd becomes angry, and police escort the truck away, wearing body armor and carrying shotguns loaded with beanbag rounds.2 As they retreat, another minor aftershock strikes, and it breaks up the crowd.

The citizens of Portland are stressed. This sort of impatience is perhaps understandable after four days in which many people have been forced to live on their lawns, because their homes are unstable.3 The stores of fresh water that people were able to find or rescue from their earthquake kits are running out. And although there has been copious public messaging reminding people not to drink from puddles of rainwater, it has been happening.4 The NETs are running a station at the BEECN, purifying water with bleach or iodine, but many don't want to carry water all the way there and back.

There is only so long that most Americans will good-naturedly use a bucket as a toilet, before they begin to complain.

There is only so long that most Americans will good-naturedly use a bucket as a toilet, before they begin to complain. There is only so long that most Americans will continue to empty those buckets in a safe and sanitary manner, before becoming lazy, and allowing them to sit full, or spill. With sewage still flowing in the streets in some areas, and backing up into basements in other areas, it is tempting to just toss one's bucket in with the public sludge.5

We all know we must accept that this is a disaster, and that it will be stressful whether we like it or not. But our ability to walk the walk and talk the talk grows thinner with each passing day. It doesn't help that due the the liquefaction, certain areas have more utility damage than others, and feelings of unfairness and neglect abound in certain neighborhoods. The water may be off everywhere, but only certain streets have raw sewage evaporating on them.

Community groups like the Red Cross have set up kitchens at the C-PODs, where they can cook and serve food communally. We walk to the large white tents, set up in parks and school grounds. Sometimes for three meals a day, depending on how well our kitchens and pantries survived. These kitchens have been relying upon donations from the neighborhood, but they have been running low, and spirits are sagging.6

I have some rice and pasta left that I rescued from my off-kilter house, but my vegetables are gone without refrigeration, and I'm all out of good protein. When we can scrounge enough ingredients to avoid the lines at the Red Cross tents, my neighbors and I combine our resources, sharing a propane camp stove and a fuel tank pulled from a grill. I wish it was anything but pasta—it takes so much water to cook, and then we must let the cooking water cool, to drink the gross, gluten-clouded broth. We can't afford to waste even a drop. Grocery stores are running out of canned food, and so is everyone else. Or, at least they say they are. There is a general feeling that people are hoarding, but no one is making public accusations yet.

Food deliveries are desperately needed, but the few trucks with fuel to roam the Portland metro area must also collect and deliver fresh water, and gasoline to fuel the machinery of reconstruction. Fuel for the trucks must be split between delivery vehicles, emergency vehicles, and construction vehicles. Food is a priority, but only one of many.7

Without power, water, or transportation, nearly every place of business is temporarily closed.8 One benefit of this extended earthquake holiday is that residents have been organizing to clean up their neighborhoods. Rather than the streets being deserted as they would be during a winter storm emergency, they are filled with people, walking, talking, and working together, creating ties and alliances where they were never necessary before, in our contemporary urban world. In between shifts at the BEECN, my neighbors and I roam about with shovels and wheelbarrows to move debris to centralized locations, where it will be picked up by the city. At least, at some point—when there is gasoline to do so. Most of the light clean up in the neighborhoods is finished, save what needs heavy machinery and skilled rebuilders.

Cell phones and internet still don't work. At the BEECN, we register our names, and they say there will be a database online for our relatives and friends to search. There were relatively few who died in the city. But I can only imagine what my family must be thinking about my whereabouts.

During the earthquake, the two largest transpacific fiber optic cables were severed, as they ran directly over the subduction fault. This created worldwide delays in internet service as ISPs struggled to route around the two missing cables, via more southern routes. Most of the serious local damage to communication networks hit west of the I-5 corridor, but many global internet services experienced disruptions as their server farms based in Central and Eastern Oregon dealt with network congestion and regional power grid outages.9

But while the internet has routed around the damaged Pacific Northwest, the Pacific Northwest cannot route around itself. Three major trunk switching locations in Portland were housed in buildings constructed prior to seismic codes, and now must be completely replaced.10 Hundreds of thousands of households across the region are unable to get so much as a dial tone or a Google search page.11

Most cellular equipment is designed to withstand seismic shaking stronger than felt during the quake in Portland, but most antenna and towers in the urban areas are on building roofs, and are only as strong as the structures to which they are connected.12 Temporary cellular trucks are on the way from all parts of the country, but have not yet made it through the blocked roads.13 Not that there is enough fuel to run emergency generators, anyway.14 Repairs to consumer communications will be the lowest priority, after electricity, water, and natural gas.15

Portlanders dig out FM radios, and scrounge together enough batteries to operate them. The local Oregon Public Broadcasting station in Portland is the primary entry point for the statewide Emergency Alert System, and it went back online less than 24 hours after the earthquake.16 Any emergency message that is broadcast here, will end up re-broadcast by radio and TV stations across the state. However, with most radio stations' antennas and transmission lines damaged, or simply without electricity or fuel for generators, the resilient broadcast equipment of OPB is now the only game in town.

The radio station is the main line of information for the public, continuously broadcasting the most recent status of the supply convoys, weather updates, and other informative advice about purifying water and avoiding disease. The people of Portland appreciate the lifeline, but the news repeats over and over throughout the day, and at the BEECN we just wish they would play some music.

The standard topic of conversation in Portland's cracked and wrinkled streets, is to wonder what is next. How long will it take before things approach "normal"? Will Portland ever be the same?

After that come the "If onlys." If only we had gasoline, and could drive east, out of the destruction zone. If only we had hot water, to take a shower. If only we had a water filter. If only we had a nice, hot espresso. If only we had a garden to tend, to grow food. But DIY or not, it's April, and it's far too early for fresh produce in Portland.

We are, once again, contained by the boundaries of nature. And in a wrecked urban environment crowded with bored, hungry people, the bounty of nature is far from here.

+5 Days

On the fifth day after the quake, the Navy reaches the coast. The entire staff of Portland's Emergency Operations Center (EOC) pauses to watch live video of landing ship craft depositing US Marines on the beaches of Oregon and Washington. The small boats are modern versions of craft that most recognize from films of World War Two, and here they are, landing on the American coast.17 But it is not an invasion—it's a retreat. The Marines help coastal survivors into the craft, ferrying them back to the larger ships that have made the journey up the coast from the naval base in San Diego.

State authorities and FEMA have decided to completely evacuate the coast by sea, until roads can be repaired and reconstruction actually contemplated.18 The coastal areas are like islands now. Bordered on one side by the frothing Pacific, that only days ago swept onto land in sixty-foot waves, the coastal communities of Oregon are now isolated on the other side by the Coast Range mountains. The narrow mountain roads that once traversed the beautiful Coast Range to connect the coast to the I-5 corridor of Portland, Salem, and Eugene are gone, swallowed up by landslides, or sliced into dislocated segments by collapsed bridges and destroyed tunnels.

Rebuilding these roads will take months, and it will be years before the road system returns to anything like normal.

Highway 101, the only road going up and down the coast, will be nearly completed destroyed, and will require a national-level effort to rebuild.19 I have driven that road many times myself, enjoying the gorgeous views of the basalt monoliths rising out of the Pacific. The basalt is still there, standing up against the beating waves as it has for thousands of years. The road, however, is no more—in equal parts drowned, shaken to bits, buried under landslide, and swallowed by liquefied earth.

Rebuilding these roads will take months, and it will be years before the road system returns to anything like normal, in this landslide-prone terrain that received the full force of the quake, many times more intense than what we felt in Portland. Without the roads, there can be no new power, water, or gas lines. It's unknown whether some coastal towns will ever recover. By the time electricity, water, sewer, and transportation infrastructure is restored, the people who once called the coast home will likely have been making a life elsewhere for years.20 The Pacific Coast of Oregon, always a bit wilder and more natural than other states, due to its geology, has become even wilder still.

For those whose loved ones are not found on the ships sailing back to California, the story of what became of them out on the rugged coast might never be known. I think about friends in Clatskanie, ten miles up the Columbia from the ocean. They live right along the river, separated from the water by an earthen levee, less than ten feet above the river at this time of year. I wonder if the tsunami dissipated before it reached them. Highway 30, one of two main roads leading from Portland to the coast, is the only way for them to reach town, and it is too buried in landslides between here and there for anyone to check on them. They are too far from the coast to make it to the ships, too far from Portland to make it to the city. I hope they are safe in the middle somewhere, surviving on a dry and stable bit of land, hopefully in the company of neighbors, as we are here.

It's a solemn moment, as a victory is ceded to the earth's natural forces. And there may yet be others. Word has been quietly spreading around the Portland EOC about an evacuation of the city. Officially, evacuating the city is not currently on the table. But as we sit outside our damaged homes without water, food, fuel, or electricity, we can't help but fixate on the idea of leaving.

The EOC staff use something called a Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST), which, despite its very bureaucratic-sounding name, is simply a group of volunteers from outside the area that uses various forms social media to collect opinions and disseminate information.21 They let officials know which rumors are percolating on Twitter and Facebook, and help correct them with good information, as much as they can.

The VOST is reporting that the question of evacuating Portland and the rest of the I-5 Corridor is the most frequently discussed issue throughout the world, trending on Twitter for over a day now under the hashtag #evacNW. We would never know it, cut off from the rest of the world's information-sphere, but the worldwide hive-mind is asking the questions that we're all thinking. Why isn't there a plan for evacuation, the internet wants to know? If there isn't enough water, food, or gasoline, why not get everybody out? Conspiracy theories are spreading.

But the truth is that there isn't enough gasoline and diesel to get everybody out. There aren't enough buses. There aren't enough open roads. There's not enough water and food to support such a massive convoy. And there aren't any cities within a day's drive that could accept such an influx of population. The majority of Oregon's 4 million people live on the I-5 corridor. There's no way to move such a mass of people in timely fashion, and so we are safest where we are.22 With or without the rumors, the city must sit upon its own neatly piled rubble, and wait for help to arrive.

Next: The last installment: Little Rose City

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 Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 6-5; Portland Earthquake Appendix, 27.

2. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 4-5.

3. The City of Portland recommends that residents prepare "to be self-sufficient for no less than five days," during a major earthquake. City of Portland, Earthquake Response Appendix, 25.

4. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 5-1, 2.

5. Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 210.

5. Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 210.

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

7. Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 31.

8. Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 17, 29, 210

9. Department of Homeland Security, Draft Analytical Baseline Study for the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami, 150.

10. City of Portland, Earthquake Response Appendix, 12

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

12. Equipment built to GR-63-CORE Standard should survive a 6.3-7.0. Telcordia, NEBS Requirements: Physical Protection GR-63-CORE (2006), 4-22; Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 186.

13. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 126.

14. Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 188.

15. Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 186.

16. State of Oregon, Oregon State Emergency Alert System Plan (2013), 7; Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 5-1,2.

17. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 6-17, 22.

18. Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 49, 52; Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 6-14.

19. OOregon Department of Transportation, Oregon Highways Seismic Plus Report, 39.

20. Estimates are one to three years before water and sewer service could be restored on the coast. Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 230, 232.

21. Interview with Dan Douthit, November 2015; City of Portland, Earthquake Response Appendix, 38.

22. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 6-28.