Pacific Northwest
Joseph Louis is an assistant professor in the School of Civil and Construction Engineering at Oregon State University.

OR - What will it take to clean up after 'big one?'

If COVID-19 can teach us anything, it should be about the need to plan and prepare for high-risk events. For our communities in Oregon, that event is the ominous “big one” — a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone located off the coast of Oregon, Washington, and California.

This earthquake would result in tremendous damage due to ground shaking and the ensuing tsunami.

Fortunately, many governmental, nonprofit, and educational organizations are working on several fronts to improve our preparedness and resilience. As an example, we have the Cascadia Lifelines Program (CLiP) at Oregon State University, which funds research to enhance our fundamental understanding of the nature of the Cascadia earthquake and to develop innovative measures to mitigate its effects. Still, it is important to consider what the full recovery of hard-hit communities would look like.

One aspect of post-disaster recovery that is quite often overlooked due to more urgent matters (i.e. providing medical relief for survivors, first response operations), is how to address the staggering amount of debris that is produced. We will need to remove, sort, and dispose all this debris before any rebuilding can happen. The Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission (OSSPAC) estimated that about 10 million tons of debris would be produced after the Big One, needing roughly a million truckloads for their removal and disposal.

To put these numbers into perspective, imagine 13 years’ worth of trash for the entire state being produced in a just a single day! When we consider that this trash consists not just of regular household waste, but also of construction material, vegetative debris, hazardous waste, and a host of other materials that need to be separated, treated, and disposed of appropriately, we can start to appreciate the scale and complexity of the required debris removal effort.

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