Economic Rifts Complicate Disaster Preparations Across Cascadia Subduction Zone

Sep 26, 2019

Scientists say there’s a 1-in-3 chance of a powerful earthquake hitting the Pacific Northwest in the next 50 years. Residents of the Cascadia Subduction Zone are advised to stockpile two weeks’ worth of water, food, and medical supplies should the “Big One” strike. As part of our series on Oregon's Natural Resources and Resilience funded by the UO Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics, KLCC’s Brian Bull reports, economic disparities already divide those who can readily prepare, and those who will struggle to.

A homeless camp outside Jacob Maurie Park is visited by clean-up crews.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

On a cool, bright morning, locals visit a dozen tents at Eugene’s Park Blocks, for the city’s Emergency Preparedness Fair. Officials and vendors are covering everything from portable toilets to retrofitting homes against earthquakes. 

Locals gather for the City of Eugene's latest Emergency Preparedness Fair at the downtown's Park Blocks.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

Among those Eugenians prepped and ready is Scott Vollstedt.

“We have 60 gallons of water, we have freeze-dried food, we have a radio, we have a toilet system," he tells KLCC.  "We know how to turn the water off, know how to turn the gas off.”

From a nearby shelter, a man who identified as homeless watches with several others. He won’t give his name, but says he’s taken some free materials from the preparedness fair. It’ll complement his own readiness kit which has been part of his daily life for years.

“Emergency blankets, and extra food and water, waterproof matches, and trash bags that you carry," he explains.

A homeless person sleeps on a sidewalk near the downtown area of Eugene.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

"Not only can you use it for a parka, maybe you can inflate it so you can cross a body of water, or you can cut it in half and use it as like roofing material underneath brush for making a temporary shelter.  

"People on the street tend to be pretty – I guess you could say – prepared.”

A 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows Oregon with the second highest number of unsheltered homeless people, after California. And Census data says 13 percent of Oregonians live in poverty.

While it’s challenging enough for middle and upper income residents to cover even two weeks’ worth of water and food per person, it can be far more so for the working poor and unhoused.

Sarah Reich is an analyst with ECONorthwest, a regional economic consulting firm.

Sarah Reich, policy analyst for ECONorthwest.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“There are other things – if you’re really thinking about disaster preparedness – that you want to be thinking about," says Reich. 

"And these are even bigger ticket items. Should I have earthquake insurance?  Should I be making retrofits to my house?  Should I be paying to secure the house to the foundation?”

Those additional purchases can cost thousands. Reich says for Oregon’s less advantaged residents, the time and money simply aren’t there. 

“And so when the event happens, they have fewer resources that they have personally amassed to get through it.”

For example, Reich says, renters may find their building damaged enough to be condemned, should their landlord lack the capital to rebuild it for habitation again.

More well-to-do disaster victims can often leave an affected area due to their financial means and social networks. But destitute people are usually stuck, in an area left economically poorer as seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In this September 2005 photo taken in New Orleans, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and agents assist people after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Credit U.S. Customs and Border Protection /

Relief groups and charities are aware of the problems, and working to be proactive.

“There’s many creative things that we can do to make our societies much more resilient…but it really means that you have to take everything that we have, human and otherwise, as a resource,” said Terry McDonald at a resiliency fair last month.  

Terry McDonald, Executive Director of St. Vincent de Paul.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

McDonald is Executive Director of St. Vincent de Paul. Their ongoing housing projects -like one on River Road- are being designed to work off the grid, with its own power and water. 

Yet McDonald warns that once disaster strikes volunteers will be affected, and unable to readily staff places like the Egan Warming Centers.

“Always in a disaster you’re going to end up with a period of time where there will be less.  ‘Cause the normal supply chains and normal activities are curtailed," explains McDonald. 

"There will be less, and there’ll be more demand. Which would then probably put people who are in a precarious life situation even further into a problem.”

That’s what our homeless source outside the preparedness fair encountered some years back. He was living in the streets of Tacoma during a lengthy blackout.

“That week was literal hell for me," he recalls.  "Even at the missions, there were so many new people there because of not being able to have power, so that meant not being able to go to work, not being able to buy food because you’re not getting money.  I was getting next to nothing.” 

Response to a Cascadian disaster would be coordinated towards everyone, assure officials. Kevin Holman, Emergency Manager for the City of Eugene, says he’s been in touch with the White Bird Clinic and other agencies.

Kevin Holman, Emergency Manager for the City of Eugene, discusses preparedness with a local housing association at the First United Methodist Church.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“We look at this as a whole community planning process," says Holman. "We know that we’re going to be without resources for some period of time.  When we eventually get those resources here, they’d be available to everybody.

"We’re looking at setting up places throughout the city where they can come and access water for example. Bedding, meals, maybe medical, things like that.”

In time, aid from all levels of available government would arrive, as would donations from across the U.S.

Sarah Reich of ECONorthwest says there are preventative measures to offset the personal and economic toll before a disaster. This includes paying workers a livable wage, and building more affordable housing.

“If you can focus on policies that address social inequality or economic disparity now, you’re solving that problem today," says Reich. 

A homeless camp in downtown Eugene, spring 2019.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

"And you’re making your community, the individuals who are experiencing that kind of economic disparity, more able to cope with it later.  So it’s a double benefit.”

Enacting those policies takes time. Meanwhile, individual efforts continue.

“Over here are the empty containers I’ve yet to fill,” says Cameron Yee, showing the status of his preparations inside his Eugene house.  He says he’s got rice, beans, SPAM, and powdered milk stashed away for his family of four.

These rations will need refreshing now and then, given their shelf life.  But the consequences of not preparing makes the case for Yee.

Eugene resident Cameron Yee says several trips to COSTCO and advance planning has given him a decent emergency pantry should a large-scale disaster hit the city.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“It’s an expense. On top of all the preparation, that financial aspect is an additional challenge," he admits.

"But you can rationalize it like an insurance policy. If you can spread things out over time, do small things month to month, that will certainly help.”

Yee says well before his provisions hit their expiration date, he’ll donate them to Food for Lane County. It’ll help those who are currently in distress...and may stand to be more so during a regional crisis.

Note: Funding for KLCC's Resilience and Oregon’s Natural Resources Series comes from the University of Oregon Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics.

Copyright 2019, KLCC.