Withstanding the Big One

Ramshackle Walls Could Be Reed’s Downfall

Amidst the patchwork of new building developments and renovations that have spread through Reed’s campus in the past few decades, it seems that a few unreinforced masonry walls slipped through the cracks — and that could spell real trouble when the Big One finally hits.

Reedies new to the Pacific Northwest might be unfamiliar with the region’s obsession with the “Big One,” a magnitude-8.0-or-greater earthquake for which our region is supposedly overdue, and which will likely hit within the next century or so. As Portland lies right next to the Cascadia Subduction Zone, where the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate borders the North American plate, our region has experienced a catastrophic earthquake about once every few centuries, with the most recent in January of 1700. These earthquakes are caused by the Juan de Fuca plate slowly bending the North American plate until it snaps back under the immense pressure. This means that, within the next century or so, Portland can reasonably expect to experience another massive earthquake.

Albyn Jones, a Reed professor emeritus of statistics, is well versed on the threat that an earthquake could pose to the Pacific Northwest. “The media like to focus on the magnitude 9 scenario, a full rupture of the 1000km Cascadia zone,” he said, “but a partial rupture would likely be magnitude 8, very scary and still very damaging for unreinforced masonry buildings.” While a huge subduction zone earthquake presents a very real threat to Portland, other deep earthquakes of slightly smaller magnitude could also cause immense damage to the region.

With this in mind, how screwed would Reed be in a large earthquake?

For a while it was assumed that all of Reed’s inhabited buildings were reinforced masonry buildings, meaning that they could withstand quite a bit of lateral movement during an earthquake without collapsing. However, a recent engineering survey revealed that a few walls on campus — most notably the 1963 extension of the library, a west wall of the Sports Center, and a wall in the Physical Plant — are unreinforced masonry walls, meaning that they would quickly collapse under sufficient lateral motion. Other Reed buildings, even those built as far back as the 1930s, were actually built to much higher standards of earthquake preparedness than these identified weak spots, which could become piles of rubble when the Big One hits.

But why are these walls unreinforced? Much older buildings were constructed with reinforced masonry, so clearly engineers and architects were aware of the potential benefits of this precaution. It seems that the construction of many of the affected walls was led by the same architect in the 1960s, who, for some reason or another, must have decided against using reinforced masonry. Now, we have to pay for the corners this architect cut when first building those walls.

In November’s faculty meeting, Towny Angell, Director of Facilities Operations, estimated that renovations to reinforce the library’s reading room could take up to 14 months, representing a “major unplanned capital expenditure” and potentially displacing thesising seniors. Reed officials are still in the preliminary stages of the plan to renovate, and while they would like to fix this issue as soon as possible, it will take some time to determine the best method to reinforce these walls.

For now, this issue’s probably not worth too much anxiety. You should do what you can to be prepared: have an emergency pack ready with food, water, and outdoors supplies, if possible, and know to drop, cover, and hold on in the case of an earthquake. Outside of that, it is largely up to long-term measures out of your hands, like building reinforcement, to mitigate the potential catastrophe of a Cascadia Subduction Zone quake. When the Big One hits, you better hope you’re in a building that’s ready for it.