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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Disaster Porn’s Second Coming, or More Earthquaking Good Times

Posted by Nathan Gilles on Wed, Mar 20, 2013 at 3:14 PM

Once again, the fine editorial staff at the Mercury has let me write a cover story about a disaster. This new piece—which Steve Humphrey lovingly refers to as "more disaster porn”—looks at what might happen to Oregon’s communications networks when the “Big One” strikes. It also examines what Oregon telecoms are doing, or not, to prepare for a calamity we’re very likely to get any time in the next 50 to 100 years, or—given that we’re overdue for a big quake—maybe even tomorrow.

So what aren’t the telecoms doing for their buildings, which house vital equipment that routes internet and phone traffic—including 911 calls? Quite a bit, it turns out.

This includes not working with state seismic planners, and, as one person in the know told me, updating their equipment to the current quake codes only when it makes economic sense. But as the new story points out, the telecoms’ biggest earthquake liabilities are their seismically vulnerable buildings.

These are buildings that, for the most part, were built mid-century or earlier. They predate the current seismic codes. And it’s unclear what, if any, retrofitting has been done to them. In other words, what we’re talking about is a lot of really new high-tech stuff—including some equipment that’s already up to the current seismic specs—housed in low-tech shells that aren’t expected to perform well in a big quake.

In fact, they might even collapse entirely. And, experts say, it could take years to replace them and get our data-hungry communications networks even close to where they are now.

So why haven’t these buildings been updated, aside from the fact it would presumably cost the telecoms a lot of money? Well, it’s because legally they don’t have to.

According to Oregon building codes, the rule is, if an old building has been used continuously for the same purpose (“occupancy” in the lingo), the building is legally exempt from having to be upgraded to the current building codes, which started taking large earthquakes into consideration only in the 1990s.

That means if a building's been used as, say, a telecommunications hub since the late 1960s and is still being used for that purpose—like CenturyLink’s office at 735 SW Stark in downtown Portland appears to be—it does not need to be retrofitted to the current standards. That holds true even if the building changes owners.

With one exception, this seems to be the case with CenturyLink’s Stark office, which is one of these important 911 routing centers.

The office is a bit of a black hole, at least based on the information listed in the city's buildings database. While less important buildings bare all, including when they were built and how much they’re worth, CenturyLink’s Stark office is a bit of a prude. But you can learn a lot by looking at a building’s nasty bits.

According to its plumbing records, the CenturyLink office was built in the late '60s for Pacific Northwest Bell. For the most part, it has a solid history of listings as a telecom building, though it might have briefly been an office building in the mid-1980s (or was mislabeled by plumbing inspectors as an office building).

From there it was passed on to US West Communications, which later became Qwest, which later became CenturyLink. In other words, the line of succession ensures the building was probably used for the same purpose, and that purpose predates the new and safer codes. But that doesn’t mean the building hasn’t had some work done.

A CenturyLink spokesman wasn’t able to confirm if any seismic work had been done to the building. However the Mercury was able to track down an engineer who did confirm that building had been worked on; he says that work was done voluntarily by its owner. According to this engineer, the work involved some minor seismic upgrades, but nothing big.

I’m planning a trip to the records office for what will be a long day of filing through piles of microfiche to find out for sure. But seismic experts say you don’t need to look at each building to know how they will perform in a large earthquake, instead you can just look at when the building was built. If it’s pre-1990, it’s probably not going to do well in a large quake.

As for if and when this and other important buildings will be retrofitted, or replaced entirely, that decision is now in the hands of Oregon lawmakers.

The Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission (OSSPAC) recently went to Salem to lay on lawmakers what ended up being a very large and not-so-good-looking assessment of just how bad the coming 9.0 disaster will be.

Included in their tome were several recommendations, one of them that telecom buildings be held to the same high seismic standards as emergency facilities like hospitals and fire stations. As one CenturyLink employee put it, that “could be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.” But who will pay this billion-dollar-cost is another story.

OSSPAC is currently recommending the Oregon Public Utility Commission—the state agency with the right to set utility rates—oversee the upgrading of the state’s telecoms to the emergency standard. This change—and upgrades to the electric and gas utilities, which also need seismic work—are probably going to be paid for largely through rate increases to utility consumers, meaning you and me.

This we-pay-so-the-utilities-don’t-have-to scenario might not seem ideal, but say OSSPAC members, it’s what’s politically feasible. The group is also recommending these rate increases and the work they’ll fund be extended over an equally politically feasible 50-year period.

When that time frame starts now depends on how quickly Oregon lawmakers to decide to act.

Here’s hoping we have that much time.

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