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Earthquakes Jolt Safety Officials Into Action

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Background

I was on the phone with a friend during two earthquakes that hit Oregon on Sept. 21, 1993. The twin shocks turned out to be the biggest earthquake event in Oregon’s recorded history, which frankly isn’t saying much. She happened to live on an upper floor of the University Inn, the tallest building on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene, a few hours north of the epicenter. It vibrated but suffered no damage during the quakes. I was in my ground-floor apartment and didn’t feel a thing. The incident, however, raised an important question: How well-prepared were University buildings for another, possibly more serious, quake?

Earthquakes jolt safety officials into action

Safety of campus buildings in question, though no structures damaged in quakes

By Arik Hesseldahl
Oregon Daily Emerald
01 October, 1993, Page 1

By the morning of Sept. 21 most University students had heard about the two earthquakes that rocked the Klamath Falls area, and many were disappointed they didn’t notice the ground shaking in Eugene.

But newly moved-in residents at the University Inn dormitory crowded into the ground-floor lobby, frightened after the two sister shocks that measured a magnitude of 5.9 and 6 on the Richter Scale and an aftershock rattled the upper floors of the building.

University Inn Resident Director Cessa Heard-Johnson said there was no damage to the building, and that she took steps the following morning to reassure residents that the building was only vibrating with the earth movement as it was designed to do.

“I told them it was like shaking a rule at one end. All the vibrations are at the other end,” she said.

Several University officials agreed that the quakes underscored a need to upgrade campus buildings to withstand a potentially devastating quake that geologists are now saying is possible in the region.

Nancy Wright, University Housing facilities director, said that since early 1992 all new construction projects on campus have been required to meet tougher new structural standards, but that building improvements are needed to bring older buildings up to meet those new codes. Wright said that this has become a problem statewide following recent discoveries that Oregon is in a zone where severe earthquakes strike every 500 years or so.

Wright said that University Housing has requested money to study ways to make dormitory buildings more earthquake-resistant, and that those improvements will be completed alongside changes required by the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“The redundant inner structure of the dorms makes them pretty safe on the inside,” Wright said. “What we’re worried about is breaking glass and falling bricks and concrete.”

Wright said the Bean Complex dormitories would probably be the first in line to receive the improvements and that other dorm complexes will follow on a yearly basis. She said that University Housing is ahead of the rest of the University and the state in general when it comes to addressing earthquake needs.

“The problem is that you don’t design buildings to withstand something that occurs every 500 years,” she said. “You plan for earthquakes if they tend to happen in the area every 100 years or so. In our case, we have to plan to spend our dollars wisely and efficiently.”

University Physical Plant Director George Hecht said that although there is a growing recognition statewide of the need to improve buildings, the University is in a fairly safe area.

“We’re about as prepared as we could be,” he said. “As you walk around campus, there’s no building that you could point to that you could say is unsafe.”

Hecht said the newest campus buildings, such as the science buildings Willamette, Deschutes, Streisinger and Cascade, are built to resist earthquakes.

Several campus buildings, including older buildings like Deady and Villard, are built over large areas of underground bedrock, he said.

“I’d be very surprised to see a tremendous amount of damage,” he said. Fred Tepfer, an architect with the University Planning Office, has advised the University on construction projects. He agreed with Hecht that the rock beneath the campus is helpful, but said it’s not as helpful as sound construction. At least half of all earthquake danger comes from falling debris, both inside and out, and that in the case of many older buildings, the University is not ready for a serious quake.

Tepfer used Chapman and Condon halls as examples of the difference between structural and non-structural damage.

“Chapman is mainly a concrete shell surrounded by bricks,” he said. “Most of the danger there is from bricks falling on your head.

“In the case of Condon, you’ve got un-reinforced bricks. With buildings like that it’s really difficult to predict what might happen,” he said.

Tepfer said that in the case of older buildings made of un-reinforced bricks, the possibility of a total building collapse should be considered, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the building will crumble in the event of a large quake.

“There are so many details to consider in an earthquake,” he said. “You’ve got then length, location and intensity of the quake to consider. With some of these older buildings, the engineers are just scratching their heads.”

Tepfer applauded the housing department for taking steps to address the problem.

“They’re way ahead of the rest of the University and probably most of the other state agencies,” he said. “They’re doing a tremendous job.”

University Housing has an important edge over the rest of the University. As a self-supporting department, housing has more money for renovations and capital improvement.

But in the wake of tight budgets caused by 1990’s Ballot Measure 5, the money to improve buildings campus-wide is in short supply, if available at all.

Associate Vice Chancellor George Pernsteiner visited the campus of the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls Wednesday, and said that campuses statewide are looking there for lessons on how to prepare for earthquakes in the future.

At the OIT campus, housing staff members evacuated the dormitories after both large quakes and one of the aftershocks. The campus suffered some extensive damage to several of its buildings, particularly the library and student union.

“They’re really lucky that no one was in either one of those buildings when the quake happened,” Pernsteiner said.

Pernsteiner said a recent study of buildings at Oregon State University showed that to bring existing buildings up to current building codes is an expensive undertaking and unlikely because of the current shortage of money. Construction costs alone on any one building can easily reach into the millions, he said. Physical plant directors from campuses around the state will meet on Oct. 8 to discuss cheap ways of minimizing earthquake damage.

“We have a number of safety concerns, but we just don’t have a pot of money to deal with them all right now,” Pernsteiner said. “So we’re trying to determine what we can do operationally to minimize the damage without major reconstruction projects. Right now we have to ask how many class sections do we cancel to take care of these problems.”

One example of this kind of preparation might be to widen bookshelves in the library and link them all together across the top, he said.

Written by ahess247

June 28th, 2009 at 11:02 am

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