Art: Rebekka Dunlap

Little Rose City

Two weeks after the quake toppled Portland, mini-cities have sprung up and the military is taking over. Recovery is in sight. Part 5 of 5.

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Mar 3 2016, 11:00am

Art: Rebekka Dunlap

This is the final installment of After the Big One. To experience the entire catastrophic quake scientists believe will hit the Pacific Northwest any time now, start here.


+14 Days

Slowly but surely, help will arrive. After two weeks of unprecedented work by agencies at all levels of government, roads are established leading into the city.1 Army engineering units build temporary bridges. New roads are bulldozed through landslides. And on these cleared roads, a massive parade of trucks lines up, bringing in everything from fuel to furniture, from new water pipes to portable buildings. And along with the materials, come workers, from all parts of the country.2 All of those new water lines and utility poles aren't going to install themselves.

Within the comatose metro area, tiny, miniature cities are being built, humming with activity in contrast to the stalled motion around them. The Rose City Golf Course in Northeast Portland is the site of one of these temporary hives. Displaced Portlanders like myself whose houses are too damaged to be habitable have moved into the open area, for the second time since the quake.

Many of us camped in this open area while evacuating North and Northeast Portland during the St. Johns fire on day one. After that it became a C-POD for water and food, and others moved in to be close by. But now the loose swarms of tents are gone, and a more orderly temporary city has sprung up.

Hundreds of people are living in mobile trailer units acquired from construction companies, donated RVs, and National Guard tents.3 They have been assembled into orderly streets across the golf links, and lit with temporary lighting running off massive, flat-bed diesel generators. Our new neighborhood, known to its residents as Little Rose City, shines bright orange into the night.4

It is a far cry from the maze of tents, tarps, and tripwire ropes that quickly grew the first night after the quake, two weeks ago. There is a commissary, a temporary medical clinic, a toilet facility, and a fresh water filtration unit on the back of a National Guard truck. Plumbing, electrical, and carpentry workers who have descended into the city by the hundreds are also finding housing here, assigned to temporary addresses in Little Rose City.5

Little Rose City is also the Incident Command Post (ICP) for the Northeast Quadrant.6 With more fuel comes more generators, and with them come temporary communications networks set up to aid emergency operations. The EOC is starting to spread out, delegating responsibilities to commanders on the scene. A forest of antennas burst from the roof of the command trailer, like electromagnetic ferns, tying Little Rose City into the expanding command structure growing across the Northwest.

The trucks carry the lifeblood of American cities—pipes, precast concrete, massive spools of wire, steel, electrical transformers, pumps, and computers.

Due to its ideal location, Little Rose City serves as a major logistical staging area.7 It is the gateway for trucks in the convoys coming west from Redmond across the mountains. The Highway 30 bypass is the new route into the city, as the freeway interchange between I-84 and I-205 just east of Rocky Butte is still completely blocked.8

Lined up facing south on 82nd Avenue, the truck drivers report their arrival to the ICP dispatchers, and are either unloaded directly into the staging area constructed on the Madison High School playing fields, or routed elsewhere. Still more trucks head to logistical staging points in the other quadrants of the city. And even more than that continue west, to where the destruction was far greater.

The trucks carry the lifeblood of American cities—pipes, precast concrete, massive spools of wire, steel, electrical transformers, pumps, and computers. Thousands of tons of material pass through the depot per day. I often go to stare at it, watching as it changes shape by the day, if not the hour. Little Rose City is like a budding evergreen cone, contracted, concentrated, the first stage of a lifecycle. The tree's branches and roots have not yet taken form, but they exist within this kernel, just waiting to spread out and grow.

Looking out at the massive stacks of palletized material lined up around the high school track, lit day and night by portable floodlights, the mind boggles at the amount of material that goes into building a city. These are the bits of metropolis, installed within walls and buried in the ground every day, out of sight. The earthquake expelled them from their nests, driving them up out of the soil, punching them through masonry, toppling them from roofs and poles. Now they are present, centralized, visible, and in the open, waiting like us, to return to their proper homes within the structure of the city.

The reconstruction process is two-fold. First, the grid itself must be repaired, so that water, electricity, sewage, and gas will flow. Then, buildings must be reattached to the grid, where the individual pipes have snapped, the power lines have fallen, or the building's own internal systems failed during the catastrophic shaking.

Utility companies and their contractors handle the grid, but individual consumers must organize the repair of their own homes, with the aid of State and Federal money. The official disaster declarations by the Governors and the President of the United States in the hours after the quake trigger the Stafford Act. This law allows the federal government to provide funding, and use federal agency resources to back up those of the state. These resources can be used for rebuilding, for legal aid, for relocation, food, and unemployment assistance.9

My house has been deemed a total loss, and that is my entry ticket to Little Rose City. I will qualify for help finding new housing, but with the large number of people already looking, it may be months before anything comes up. If I owned the house, I would receive assistance in rebuilding, but that would take as much as six months, if not longer.10 My landlord lives in Seattle—I imagine he has his own problems up there, and it will be some time yet before he finds out what happen to the house I rent from him.

Getting all of these federal resources in place is not a simple process, but implementation of the Stafford Act, and the organization of FEMA itself has been changed after lessons learned during Katrina and other major hurricanes.11 No doubt there will be CSZ earthquake lessons to add to those. But in my view from the street, I'm just glad to be out of a tent.

Others, whose homes are in better shape or undamaged, are starting to experience the joy of utilities as the grid switches on again. Current estimates are that the electrical grid is close to 50 percent of pre-quake capacity.12 The water and sewer system, on the other hand, is closer to 20 percent.13 It will be a while yet before there is telephone or internet.

Portlanders are working on the reconstruction themselves, just as much or more than out-of-state agencies and workers. I work on a road crew, paid by FEMA government aid via the Portland Bureau of Transportation. Patching cracks in the roadway and helping re-pour sidewalks isn't a bad temporary job.

We receive payment with direct debit cards, because local banks are still not functional.14 These debit cards are honored by open businesses, even when the data transaction doesn't go through the dodgy phone lines. Purchases of "necessary supplies" that are less than $50 can be written down manually, and handed in to the local FEMA office for processing.

Not that there is much to spend the money on, anyway. While specific effort has been made to open food stores and provide them with water and electricity, most local businesses are still shut down, and a number of them will not be able to re-open, even when these utilities return.15 The state of Oregon estimates that production in the Portland Metro area will immediately decrease 32 percent, and employment will drop by 24 percent. Even two years later, production will still be 25 percent below normal, and employment down 16 percent.16

Airbnb signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the city back in 2014 agreeing to help out during emergencies if they could, and now this unique agreement is bearing fruit.

While at work, we are fed with army rations, "Meals Ready to Eat" (MRE), distributed by a military truck making its rounds.17 Back at Little Rose City, we eat at the Red Cross commissary. These rations don't make post-earthquake life very comforting. I prefer the commissary food, but not by much.

+20 Days

After two and a half weeks, Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM) workers are back on regular shifts, now that they have additional temporary staffing from FEMA on hand to help with the workload. The PBEM staff still stay close by to the EOC, to minimize transportation problems. Some staff were assigned to vacant Airbnb housing in the area. Airbnb signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the city back in 2014 agreeing to help out during emergencies if they could, and now this unique agreement is bearing fruit.18 Other employees are staying in motels nearby, which the city has pre-arranged leases for, in the case of these sorts of large-scale emergencies.19

Every morning at the EOC, the daily briefing for Unified Command details the progress of repairs, major mission tasks for the day, and challenges that might prevent the completion of those tasks.20

There are statistics about the number of structures reconnected to the power grid, and the progress of water main repairs: the metrics of a city attempting to heal itself. The Bonneville Power Administration says their generation and supply capability for the grid is now above consumer demand, so the major obstacle to getting the lights back on is at the level of individual structures.21 Street lights are back on in areas of the city.

The water is flowing as well, fed by gravity from Portland's copious natural reservoir (its two dams miraculously surviving unscathed) to central distribution points, where trucks distribute it to C-POD locations around the city.22 The Unified Command is worried about the collection of human waste, since the sewers are still shut down. No one likes hauling buckets of human waste across multiple blocks to the collection points, and residents are using open pits scattered all around the neighborhoods, which then collect rainwater in the late spring storms.23 A strategy is created, combining increased public messaging, and designated clean-up crews to close pits as they are discovered.

Cell phone systems are coming back as the electricity is restored—but the networks are often overloaded when people try to use them at pre-quake levels. We are reminded to use SMS, not voice or data. It will take time to replace all the antennas that were mounted on buildings, which themselves often must be torn down and rebuilt. The city is experimenting with providing community Wifi at C-PODs in order to relieve communications congestion.24 I managed to send my first text a day ago. My family had already found me in the FEMA database, amazingly, so they knew I was okay.

The fuel situation is still closely monitored, with hourly reports of quantities expended and shipments delivered.25 An eastern Washington petroleum pipeline that once flowed from Richland, Washington to Spokane has been reversed. Petroleum from Montana previously used in Spokane is routed to Richland, where it is loaded onto barges to head down the Columbia River to Portland. It used to go the other direction, up river from Portland to Richland, and then to Spokane.26

A GPS map of the region on the large video screen in the EOC tracks fuel tankers and barges, along with their quantities of fuel, as they slowly make their way to the city. On the radio, we hear daily reports of the gallons of fuel arriving, and the numbers keep increasing. The numbers might be abstract, but in Little Rose City we're using it as a scorecard, a way of measuring the mileage back towards normal.

+30 Days

A month after the CSZ quake, I've moved out of Little Rose City. I'm living near my old neighborhood, staying with friends. There are five of us, sharing a one bedroom house. It certainly isn't ideal, but it's better than Little Rose City and the other camps for displaced residents, which were getting a bit uncomfortable for families in an environment of mostly transient tradesmen.

After two weeks, the grassy streets of Little Rose City had turned to mud. Shipments of alcohol were making it into Portland again, a fact greeted with joy by many, but making the environment of the temporary city, filled with tired and stressed working people, more complicated. The toilet facilities were being serviced regularly, but were accumulating the wear and tear accompanying constant, 24-hour use. Only half of them still had functional seats and door locks. While I was impressed with the sheer amount of activity going on in the logistical staging areas at first, living next door to a non-stop loading dock quickly lost its appeal. If housing outside of the temporary camps cannot be assigned, many residents self-organize their own way out, begging into staying with friends, or friends of friends, like I did.

And still, others leave. Washington's reconstruction has progressed faster—though the state was destroyed in similar fashion, it has its own refineries which survived, and isn't plagued by the fuel problems in Oregon. And some roads are now open to head east. Those with family in other parts of the country and means to reach them are packing up what they can, and leaving of their own accord.

Despite the progress made in repairing water mains, our North Portland neighborhood is still carrying jugs to get water from community water storage tanks run by the local Water Bureau.27 These tanks are replenished daily by truck. There are also community shower stations provided by the National Guard. The porta-potties are present here as well, but they are surviving a little better here in the outer areas, rather than in the hub of activity that is Little Rose City.

Most of the less damaged areas of the city have had their water and power back for more than a week now, once the central distribution grids were repaired. But in neighborhoods hard hit by liquefaction like this one, it takes a long time to replace the pipes and wires of every street, one by one. The very ground beneath these neighborhoods has shifted, and the foundations of neighborhoods must be rebuilt piece by piece.

What we look forward to most is the sewer. One can almost get used to the lack of electricity, but after using porta-potties for weeks, and before that, buckets, a flushing toilet sounds like an amazing dream.

Federal food assistance is still being provided to many, but it mostly consists of Red Cross commissaries, and so we are trying to make it on our own if we can. For a city that always had a strong restaurant culture, the simple joy of being able to prepare a homecooked meal is a welcomed respite from meals prepared for hundreds and thousands of mouths at a time.

The stores that have re-opened are charging a fortune for food.28 A week ago, only dry staples were available—pasta, bread, powdered eggs, canned meat, and that sort of thing. Slowly but surely stores are stocking more products, but at a cost. For the price of trucking, they say. We splurged on two cucumbers yesterday, just for the momentary joy of eating something green.

Every consumable that enters the city has to wait in line on I-84. Hopefully, the Army Corps of Engineers will finish clearing the Columbia channel to the ocean soon, now that the collapsed bridges are mostly out of the way. Building material will come by ship as soon as it can, relieving strain on the limited highway system. It will be some time yet until the train routes are open.

+45 Days

On the forty-fifth day after the CSZ quake, the EOC is converting back to the Emergency Coordinating Center, and the city bureaus return to their own operations centers, handling their own responsibilities and communicating through normal channels by phone and email once again. Construction is still on-going, as the city slowly knits itself back together. And there is still plenty of paperwork to be done at the Bureau of Emergency Management, handling the vast amounts of After Action Reports, which is how agencies track the history of what happened while running the National Incident Management System. But the emergency, which required all the bureaus to come together to form a unified plan, has now become routine, and part of daily work from here on. Portland will never be the same, always permanently changed by this seismic cataclysm. But the earthquake, lasting in a sense for a month and a half, is over.

The scars of disasters of these magnitudes are borne by cities, mingling with an aging flesh.

The reconstruction work will continue. Temporary pontoon bridges will span the Willamette downtown for years, until permanent replacements can be designed and built. Many residents will not be around to see them—forced to move to new cities in order to find work, as the local economy takes its time to bounce back. But today, we turned the tap on the sink and water came out. For that, we are grateful, and the wait seems, in some way, worth it.

For those of us who stick it out, buildings around Portland will forever be known as those that survived the quake, and those that are post-quake construction. While a catastrophe is hardly the best way to renew one's city, the brand new plumbing, re-engineered roads and bridges, and new construction along the downtown waterfront will last more than the lifetimes of the Portlanders who lived through the great Cascadia Quake, until they too, are a century old, like many of the destroyed pipes and bridges were. This is the lifecycle of cities. The scars of disasters of these magnitudes are borne by cities, mingling with an aging flesh. Until one day, the scars appear as normal, and the skin is ripe for more damage to find it.

Little Rose City is closing down, as a housing site anyway. The ICP and logistical hub will remain for a while longer, until the remaining material stockpiles are winnowed away. Temporary workers are moving back into motels and cheap apartments, just as they lived before the quake. The golf course itself is completely trashed. While there are no doubt many who would like to restore it to greens and sand traps once more, it is a municipal course and owned by the city of Portland. Many are in favor of converting it into a memorial park, in honor of those who died in the earthquake.

The memories of the earthquake will not fade quickly in any part of the city, whether little or large. For years in the future across the different landscapes of Portland, residents will dig into their yards, or clear away brush to find some sort of detritus from the quake: a collection of shattered masonry, a length of fallen wire, or a section of twisted pipe. These pieces of the city, lingering on underneath the yearly leaves and gathering organic dust, are like memories. Reminding people of the time when the earth beneath their feet brought their city to a stop, and when they, through sheer effort and force of organization, managed to get it started again.

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. State plans prioritize emergency routes into three tiers. I-84, heading east from Portland, is a Tier 1 route, designed to be functional within 3-7 days. However, the estimate for current readiness is that Tier 1 routes would be at 60% in 3-6 months. (Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 141) I feel like 14 days for an open route along I-84 is a comfortably optimistic estimate, imagining an unprecedented level of national support, given the devastation.

2. City of Portland, Earthquake Response Appendix, 35.

3. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 6-5, 15, 39.

4. Little Rose City is entirely my invention, and its location is my selection, based on my knowledge of Portland and the relevant geography of this fictional scenario. However, the general concept is accurate to descriptions of base camps and temporary housing, as described in official sources.

5. Federal Emergency Management Agency, Catastrophic Incident Annex (2008), 8.

6. City of Portland, Basic Emergency Operations Plan, 73.

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

8. Oregon Department of Transportation, Oregon Highways Seismic Plus Report, 38.

9. Federal Emergency Management Agency, "Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, as amended, and Related Authorities as of April 2013," retrieved February 29, 2016, https://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/document...

10. Unlike a hurricane, that does the most of its damage to wood-frame, single-unit housing, and earthquake will be more damaging to larger, masonry structures. The real barrier to re-occupying homes will be fixing the utilities, and repairing superficial damage like windows. It is my observation that for a time, many people will prefer displacement housing like the fictional "Little Rose City," with access to services like portable toilets, but after a month, they would prefer to use buckets if it offers them some privacy. Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 29; Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 2-3.

11. see Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act.

12. DHS estimates electricity will be operational in one to eight days. The problem with the DHS estimate is that it is calculated as if all roads and service crews were at 100%, not taking into account road and bridge damage, and fuel shortages. This problem with estimates is called out specifically in the DOGAMI CEI Hub Report, which cites an unpublished Bonneville Power Administration study estimating a time period of 7 to 51 days, which "assumes many ideal conditions (BPA employees and contractor resources are immediately available, all roads and bridges are passable, available fuel, etc), which is optimistic." The State of Oregon Operations Plan, on the other hand, states that there will no electricity without generators for at least 30 days. Meanwhile, the Oregon Resilience Plan (prepared by state legislative committee rather than state executive branch), which tends to consider cascading failures, says 90% operational in 3-4 weeks. I feel my estimate of 14 days for 50% of power restoration is optimistic, but fair. Incidentally, this reasoning is a good vantage point into the various different government stakeholders currently planning for the CSZ quake, and how their estimates can differ based on their approach. Department of Homeland Security, Draft Analytical Baseline Study for the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami, 41; Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 2-3; Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, Earthquake Risk Study for Oregon's Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub, 11; Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 176.

13. The Oregon Resilience Plan estimates one month to a year to restore water service in the Portland area. The DHS estimate is one to ninety days, depending on the damage, which is really not a helpful estimate at all. What we do know is that there would likely be thousands of breaks to the system, so while total restoration would be slow, repairs to particular, less damaged areas might be quicker, and certain centralized distribution areas will likely be prioritized. One piece of good news is that Portland's drinking water source is relatively secure--it is in a landslide risk zone, but the risk here is mostly excess turbidity in the water (floating particulate matter) which would likely settle by the time the plumbing was repaired. Department of Homeland Security, Draft Analytical Baseline Study for the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami, 132; Oregon Resilience Plan, 14; City of Portland, Earthquake Response Appendix, 8.

14. Department of Homeland Security, Draft Analytical Baseline Study for the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami, 141.

15. Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 16.

16. Oregon Department of Transportation, Oregon Highways Seismic Plus Report, 101.

17. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 6-28, 29.

18. Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, "Memorandum of Understanding Between Airbnb and the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management," July 2014. Confirmed in Dan Douthit interview, November 2015.

19. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 6-41, 42.

20. Federal Emergency Management Agency, "IS-100.B: Introduction to Incident Command System, ICS-100," retrieved February 29, 2016, https://training.fema.gov/is/courseoverview.aspx?c... ; Federal Emergency Management Agency, "IS-700.A: National Incident Management System (NIMS) An Introduction," retrieved February 29, 2016, https://training.fema.gov/is/courseoverview.aspx?c...

21. Assuming that it is easier to fix the centralized grid, than it will be reconnecting and establishing consumer demand.

22. Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, Oregon Resilience Plan, 14, 208.

23. Department of Homeland Security, Draft Analytical Baseline Study for the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami, 133.

24. My own assumption, given the general nature of providing points of distribution for services, before the standard means of general distribution are replaced. There would likely be other examples of this strategy not explicitly mentioned--like distribution of clothing, toilet paper, and other household necessities. While sewage collection is mentioned a lot, no one really talks about recycling or garbage collection, but that would be a thing, too.

25. Oregon Office of Emergency Management, State of Oregon Cascadia Subduction Zone Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Operations Plan, 6-22, 23.

26. These pipelines exist as described. Although there is no plan to reverse their flow, this is done, although there are concerns about whether or not it is safe. Given the infrastructure that exists, reversing the pipelines as I've described appears to be possible. Department of Homeland Security, Draft Analytical Baseline Study for the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami, 54.

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

28. There is an emphasis in the DHS Analytical Baseline Study on analyzing food deserts, and factoring in the availability of grocery stores. Other sources talk more about food relief from free distribution points, like C-PODs. I imagine that there would be a point at which grocery stores would attempt to re-open. While it's unknown exactly what that process would be like, after the amount of time they would be closed, I can't believe that it would be a smooth process. There would likely be a good deal of inequity about what products were available, how much they cost, and what stores were carrying them. As the system of food distribution collapses, is kick started again under emergency conditions, and then returns to normal, there would likely be unforeseen problems, which I am merely tempting to hint at here. Department of Homeland Security, Draft Analytical Baseline Study for the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami, 118-121.