Are you ready for the Big One? Earthquake Tech to the rescue!

Steve Gemmell, the owner of Earthquake Tech, unexpectedly learned about seismic retrofitting 20 years ago. After getting out of college and living life as a ski bum in Colorado for a year, he was painting and refurbishing houses and ended up getting his contractor’s license. He bought his first fixer home in Portland in 1995 which was happened to be a real fixer-upper. Steve’s dad was familiar with the Cascadia Subduction Zone and suggested he get earthquake insurance. State Farm Insurance issued the policy with no questions asked. 

Fast forward to 1999 when Steve went to buy his second home and again approached State Farm to write the earthquake policy. They asked if the house was bolted down to the foundation.  Not familiar with the process, he talked to an engineer who explained to him how to make the right connections for the house. He bolted that house down to its foundation and was able qualify for the insurance policy.  An idea for a business was born… So why specialize in the retrofitting business? Steve says, “Seismic retrofitting requires way less trips to the hardware store compared to other construction/remodeling projects. I know exactly what I need and have all supplies at the ready which makes for a very efficient job.”

Seeing the importance of spreading the word for seismic reinforcement, Steve marketed his business to State Farm and the agents, in turn, would refer their insurance customers to Steve. Twenty years later, Earthquake Tech still markets to all insurance companies, home inspectors, real estate agents, and business associations, as well as offering continuing education to all those business segments and their agents.

“Earthquake Tech specializes in residential and commercial seismic retrofitting. We also run a group out of our headquarters called the Portland Resiliency Plan, a community effort bringing the message of preparedness to all walks of life and age groups in the city of Portland,” says Steve. Besides seismic retrofitting, Earthquake Tech offers many other services including full commercial and residential seismic upgrades, installation of basement staircases, egress windows and doors, staircase doors, and emergency gas shut off valves.

Earthquake Tech has recently purchased the building at 2310 N Kerby Ave just off N Russell Street and will host events here soon. Future events planned are Earthquake Tech sponsored talks by Steven Eberlein from Tipping Point Resilience on the Cascadia Subduction and earthquake preparedness. The Portland Resiliency Plan will also offer a program for business owners about creating resiliency plans/emergency plans after an earthquake, ice storm, etc.

 Many homeowners are seeing the value of retrofitting their homes and more businesses are also seeing the benefit because of the liability if an earthquake would cause damage and injury in an unreinforced building. So if you are concerned about the safety and resiliency of your home or building, want to talk about preparing your home or business for safety, or have questions about what steps to take, Earthquake Tech is the company to contact with their 20 years of experience. Check out their website for helpful information and tips, email for more information, or give them a call – the safety of your future may depend on it.

Earthquake Tech

2310 N Kerby Ave

503-282-4424 

Earthquaketech.com

contact@earthquaketech.com

LUTC Agenda for October 14th, 2019

Land Use and Transportation Committee

7:00-8:30 pm

Location: 120 NE Knott St

  1. 7:00 Open meeting, Welcome guests, Introductions (5)
  2. 7:05 Discuss agenda and accept any additions (5)
  3. 7:10 Earthquake Tech expansion plans (20) 
  4. 7:30 Discuss upcoming projects and if we want to get involved (50)
    1. Residential Infill Project, Better Housing by Design, and Anti-Displacement measures
    2. Lloyd-to-Woodlawn greenway and Safer 7th improvements.
    3. Broadway Toyota’s proposed parking structure
  5. 8:20 Approve Minutes (10)

Understanding the URMs in Eliot

By Thursday Bram

Unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs) have been the subject of multiple laws and lawsuits in Portland since 1995. As of June 1st, it’s unclear how the city of Portland will work to reduce the current number of URMs, even as renovating URMs becomes more urgent.

URMs are subject to such discussion in Portland because they’re considered particularly risky during an earthquake. These buildings are all older, dating to between 1870 and 1960, and were built using bricks and mortar. In URMs, brick-and-mortar walls are not directly attached to roofs and foundations. During earthquakes, the walls are significantly more likely to crack or crumble than those built to modern seismic safety standards. These buildings can be updated by reinforcing parapets, bolting walls to floors, and bracing the building with steel beams. 

Currently, remodeling a substantial portion of a building must also include bringing the property into compliance with current building codes. Increasing a building’s occupancy or changing a building’s use also requires upgrading seismic safety to modern standards. That requirement, combined with demolition for redevelopment, has been somewhat effective in reducing the number of URMs still standing in Portland. About 8 percent of URM buildings standing in 1995 (when that requirement was enacted) have been demolished, another 5 percent have been fully upgraded, and 9 percent have been partially upgraded.

An inventory was taken in 1996 and updated again in 2016 lists 1,600 such buildings, around 40 of which are in the Eliot neighborhood. That list does not include houses, but it does include apartment buildings. The Portland Bureau of Emergency Response estimates 7,000 households in Portland live in multi-family URM buildings. It’s difficult to give an exact count of buildings inside our neighborhood because there’s no easy way for owners to get their buildings removed from the list after they’ve made upgrades. The inventory is also known to be inaccurate at this time and there’s currently no set process for updating listings with new information.

Last year, Portland’s city commissioners passed an ordinance requiring owners of URMs post placards discussing earthquake dangers. That ordinance was scheduled to take effect on June 1st, but Judge John Acosta blocked the ordinance indefinitely on May 30th as part of a lawsuit brought by building owners in Portland. The injunction is based on a question of freedom of speech, but it’s also a questionable strategy when it comes to guaranteeing public safety. The placards, which read “This is an unreinforced masonry building. Unreinforced masonry buildings may be unsafe in the event of a major earthquake,” don’t provide any actions that people inside URMs can take in the event of an earthquake. That’s because there’s nothing different about what an individual should do in the event of that type of natural disaster: no matter what type of building you’re in during an earthquake, the only safe response is to shelter in place. If you can, take shelter under heavy furniture, like desks or tables, and wait it out.

Placarding has proven particularly problematic in Portland: multiple churches with predominantly Black congregations are on the list. It disproportionately affects organizations and individuals least likely to be able to retrofit, therefore reinforcing the impact of red-lining and gentrification in our neighborhoods. There’s an additional concern that placarding or requiring retrofitting could worsen gentrification: if small business owners or single property owners can’t afford to retrofit, their properties are more likely to wind up in the hands of developers, which leads to demolition rather than remodelers. The Eliot neighborhood is particularly susceptible to these buyouts due to our location.

The city of Portland has also failed to effectively work with these communities: Rev. E.D. Mondainé, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Portland chapter, reported that he and other pastors never received proper notification from the city that their churches were included in the URM inventory. In a letter to the city, Mondainé wrote, “Let it be established that the African American community has no desire to be noncompliant. It is, however, of critical concern of the NAACP Portland Branch, that Oregon’s documented history of excluding the African American community from the decision making processes, appears to be rearing its unsightly head once again.”

Other cities have used strategies other than placarding to improve safety in URMs, with much better results. A 2004 study established that placarding was one of the least successful approaches for Californian municipalities, while programs offering financial tools to building owners to mitigate the cost of seismic upgrades were the most effective. In Berkley, there are only 6 URMs left out of 587 identified in the mid-90s. The rest have been updated or demolished, substantially improving the city’s earthquake resiliency. Berkley’s secret sauce? The city provided financial grants to help building owners make upgrades. The city of Portland’s own URM working group recommended creating property tax exemptions to help property owners afford seismic improvements in 2015, along with other financial aid. However, that aid has yet to materialize.

Some of these funding options might be particularly useful in Eliot. While grants are ideal, a revolving loan fund could provide financial assistance faster than lobbying the state of Oregon to create a seismic retrofit tax credit. Proposals to use urban renewal area funds or to create economic development zones, in comparison, have the potential to add to the on-going gentrification in Eliot, rather than helping neighborhood residents who are already here.

Several of our neighborhood landmarks were built with unreinforced masonry walls. Given the age of most URMs, many are eligible for historic status, which can further complicate the upgrade process. Around a third of Portland’s URMs are already on the National Register of Historic Places or are contributing structures in a designated National Historic District or Conservation District. There are some benefits to such status, including an existing federal tax credit for these types of upgrades. Eliot has also been a historical conservation district since 1992, which allows for more changes than listing on the National Register of Historic Places does, but still places some limits on changes to the neighborhood’s appearance.

Also concerning are the number of schools, community centers, and other important public spaces on the list. Boise-Eliot/Humboldt Elementary School and Harriet Tubman Middle School are not on that list, but Jefferson High School is, as is Matt Dishman Community Center. We can expect to see bond issues on our ballots for years to come as Portland Public Schools works to upgrade each school to meet minimum seismic safety requirements. 

The URM debate in Portland is not over yet. The city of Portland has the option of fighting the lawsuit brought by building owners, it could choose to amend the placarding ordinance in order to address legal concerns, or it can choose to focus on other (potentially more effective) strategies to mitigate the risks presented by URMs. The city of Portland is currently looking for volunteers to join its URM working group. (https://www.portlandoregon.gov/civic/article/712316) Anyone who lives, works, worships, or does business in Portland is eligible to join the URM working group. 

Tips to Get Ready for the Big One

We’ve all heard about “The Big One”—a major seismic event that could hit Oregon within the next 40 years. While many efforts are underway to retrofit Oregon’s schools and commercial buildings, homeowners can also act to keep homes and people safe. Here are some earthquake preparedness tips to get you started:

Continue reading Tips to Get Ready for the Big One