Q+A: Author, geologist discuss 'Vice' earthquake story

Post-quake Portland fiction rattles nerves

PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland writer Adam Rothstein wrote a futuristic account of what could happen after a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake.

After the Big One,” published in Vice’s science and technology online magazine Motherboard, is billed as “reported science fiction.” Rothstein spent nearly a year researching possible scenarios and his five-part series once again has Oregonians checking their earthquake preparedness kits.   

Related: Fictional story imagines Portland after earthquake

KGW environmental reporter Keely Chalmers talked with Rothstein and Portland State University Geologist Scott Burns about what could happen in Portland after the big one hits.

Adam Rothstein

Writer, 'After the Big One'

What was some of the most interesting information you discovered in your research?

One thing is the potential for cascading failures; to have something to go wrong and something else go wrong on top of that. 

Talking about the critical energy infrastructure hub in North Portland, where they store the gasoline and the petroleum-based fuels that come into the state. Hearing about how, if that did suffer some sort of catastrophic failure, then the state would be without gasoline for an unforeseeable future. Then how do we go about doing the reconstruction that needs to be done? Fixing the water mains, fixing the electricity, cleaning up the roadways? 

Once you see it, it kind of becomes this big picture that's a little intense, a little overwhelming. I think it's good to pull these pieces out and start looking at them.

Your piece imagines a fire that engulfs the North Portland neighborhood in St. Johns. Can you talk about that?

One of the big things I talk about is the idea of there being a massive fire in the critical energy infrastructure hub and how the city has to go through the rebuilding process without having that fuel available. 

The way that I play out the fire in the hub is that the tanks end up rupturing from the shaking that goes on. There are these standing waves that happen when liquid in a big tank starts sloshing around in the middle of an earthquake. So the tanks rupture and the gas that's meant to be contained by these containment walls ends up spilling over those walls after they sink into the loose ground around the river.

So there's all this fuel spilling out over the Willamette and the fuel catches fire. And then this fire spreads across the river and into North Portland, into St. Johns. 

That's the scenario I wanted to work with, because I wanted to give a sense of the sort of magnitude of things that could happen. That won't necessarily happen. I think it's important to make that clear. But this is something that could happen given a lot of the weaknesses of the structural instabilities that have been found. 

Why did you write this story? 

I've lived in Portland for nine years and I've always been fascinated with the geology of an earthquake. But then as I've lived here longer and seen how the city comes together in various ways, I wanted to see what would happen in the event of an earthquake. When these structures we've come to rely on - the transportation system, the bridges - when this stuff starts to fall apart, then what happens next?

It's something I'm personally interested in because I live here and it could potentially happen to me. I want to be personally prepared. But also I want other people to not look at this as a scary scenario, a panic sort of apocalypse scenario. I hope that people look at it as something they can deal with once they know what's going to happen. Demystifying that and bringing out the reality within these fictional scenarios.

Scott Burns

Geologist, Portland State University

What was most successful about Rothstein’s piece?

A lot of things he did pretty well. Brick buildings, unreinforced masonry, are not going to do as well as wood buildings. The facades on them are going to be coming off and some of the really old ones that have no structure inside are going to have problems.

He talked about the bridges. The Fremont and the Marquam have been retrofitted and the new Tilikum bridge. 

He also mentioned a little bit about how the on-ramps are going to be problematic. 

One thing that I love in the article was the whole area of Northwest Portland, where all of our fuel is, in those ten tank farms that are out there near the St. Johns Bridge. All of those eggs are out there in the same basket. A lot of that gasoline and diesel is coming out of that one pipeline or being brought in on barges and it’s all on liquifiable soils. 

[Rothstein] goes into a lot more depth. He has all of the soils failing, the tanks going in to the river and catching on fire and a big huge fire going on there. I don't know about that.

We really need to diversify and get those tanks into other areas and get those eggs out of the same basket. 

Were there any scenarios that are less likely to happen?

The one that I disagree with is the landslide. He has this huge landslide, the West Hills coming down between Burnside and SW Jefferson Street, and most of the people are killed in that particular one.

I don't really think there is any basis for that. The reason is that area has gone through a large subduction zone earthquake every 500 years and that landslide has had a chance to go through that. It moved once and it really hasn't moved much since that time. When a landslide happens, it comes down and it stops. It stabilizes in a new position and the next shaking or major rainfall, it just isn't going to move. It will have small landslides off of the sides but not the whole thing going. I don't see that whole thing reactive like the Oso landslide. 

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