SAN FRANCISCO -Oregon sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, where 80% of the world's major earthquakes strike. And almost half of the state's schools are at risk of collapse in an earthquake.
Yet the state has not issued any of the $1 billion-plus of general obligation bonds authorized by voters six years ago to seismically retrofit or make as quake-proof as possible the state's schools and public safety facilities.
Last month, officials got a glimpse of what shoddy school construction can mean in an earthquake. As many as 10,000 children died when schools in Sichuan Province, China, collapsed after a May 12 quake that measured 7.9 on the Richter scale.
"The public has said they want our state's schools and emergency service centers to be made safer," Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said in a press release before the earthquake. "What are we waiting for?"
Courtney called on Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a fellow Democrat, to provide funding for the seismic retrofitting program. A spokeswoman for the governor put the blame for any delays right back on the state Legislature.
The November 2002 ballot initiative, which Courtney helped write, authorized the state to issue bonds worth up to 0.2% of the assessed value of property in the state. Fifty-six percent of voters approved the referendum. The measure did not appropriate funds to pay debt service, conduct in-depth needs assessments, or assure that the projects would get onto the state's list of capital priorities.
"The Legislature controls the purse strings," said gubernatorial spokeswoman Jillian Schoene. She said Kulongoski supports the seismic bond program. Schoene said the governor would request an undetermined amount of seismic bonds in his capital budget for the 2009-11 biennium. He did not ask for funding in the last budget cycle.
The Legislature has passed a series of bills to implement the seismic bond program, but progress comes slow in a state where lawmakers meet only every other year.
In 2005, the Legislature directed the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries to assess the earthquake safety of key infrastructure, and it directed the Office of Emergency Management to design the grant program.
In July 2007, lawmakers appropriated funding for the OEM to hire four employees to develop the seismic grant program. In April, Schoene said the agency was "close" to hiring staff for the program. On Wednesday, she said the first employee would start work at the end of June.
That's a year after the position was funded and six years after voters authorized bonds for the program. In the meantime, the emergency management agency has yet to create an application for the program, begin awarding grants, or tell local governments exactly what the program will look like.
OEM director Ken Murphy didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.
"They'll be up and running by the fall," Schoene said. She defended the OEM, saying its staff has been busy responding to the severe storm that hit the Pacific coast in December.
Once lawmakers put the seismic bond program in the capital budget, the Oregon treasurer's office can issue general obligation bonds within a few months, said state debt manager Laura Lockwood-McCall.
Oregon's GO bonds are rated Aa2 by Moody's Investors Service, AA by Standard & Poor's, and AA-minus by Fitch Ratings. The state's annual debt service is forecast to equal 4.1% of the general fund next year, well below the 5% threshold the government aims to stay under. That means the state could afford to issue up to $1 billion of new bonds during the next biennium, according to Lockwood-McCall.
"We're ready," the debt manager said.
Oregon is well behind other West Coast states in seismically retrofitting its schools. California began in 1932. Oregon delayed in part because scientists didn't understand the danger the state faces until 1986.
Geologists now know Oregon suffers rare, but enormous, earthquakes, said Robert Yeats, professor emeritus of geology at Oregon State University.
Recent studies show that Oregon's offshore Cascadia Fault erupts in earthquakes that measure as high as 9 on the Richter scale anywhere from every 200 to 1,000 years. By comparison, the Loma Prieta earthquake that hit San Francisco in 1989 measured 6.9 and the Northridge earthquake that hit Los Angeles in 1994 measured 6.7.
It's been 308 years since Oregon's last mega-quake, and the U.S. Geological Survey puts the odds of a Cascadia subduction quake during the next 50 years at 15%.
"It will definitely happen, the question is when," said Yumei Wang, geo-hazards team leader for the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries. She said the state's goal is to upgrade its schools, hospitals, and police and fire stations by 2032.
"Hopefully, we have time to prepare," said Wang. "That's what we're banking on."
Major Oregon earthquakes are giants because its Cascadia Fault lies in the subduction zone where the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate pushes underneath the North American plate. California's San Andreas Fault is a transform fault, where two plates slide past each other. Subduction zones store more energy, erupt less frequently, and cause the world's most devastating earthquakes.
A subduction earthquake struck off the Indonesian island of Sumatra in the Indian Ocean in December 2004. The 9.1 to 9.3 quake and the tsunamis that followed killed more than 225,000 people in 11 countries.
Like Indonesia, Oregon faces the risk of tidal waves as well as earthquakes because its major fault is offshore.
Small earthquakes strike Oregon and its coastal waters with greater frequency. In the past year, the state has had nine "notable" quakes that measured more than 3 on the Richter scale, according to the Pacific Northwest Seismograph Network. In April, scientists reported a swarm of more than 600 smaller quakes off the coast. In 1993, a magnitude 6 quakes shook Klamath Falls, killing two people.
In May 2007 more than two decades after Oregon's mega-quake risk was discovered the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries found that 1,018 of the state's 2,182 schools remained at "very high" or "high" risk of collapse in a significant earthquake.
The state updated its building codes in 1993, but most of its schools predate the stringent building standards.
"I don't think enough parents realize that some of these schools are going to have severe damage or even collapse in the next major quake," said Wang. "They are gambling with their children's lives."