By Isabella Waldron
This July, a woman named Katherine Schulz wrote an article for the New York Times about the impending doom of the Pacific Northwest earthquake. Schulz, a woman who has never actually lived in Portland, managed to inspire a new wave of fear in Oregonians. Beneath our very feet was a brewing natural disaster in the seismic range of 8.7 to 9.2.
This earthquake wasn’t a new discovery by Ms. Schulz. Oregonians have been privy to this information for many years. I think I first found out about it in 6th grade and after a few weeks of terror whenever the dryer went on and shook the floor, I got over the fear that the earthquake could come at any time.
After this New York Times article, the fear seemed to stick more than it had. When I returned to school for the Senior beach trip, the bus was atwitter with predictions about the tsunami and what would happen if the earthquake struck. I think the concern is largely a matter of control, or rather the lack of it. We have zero control over when or what the earthquake can do. The only things we can do are know what to do if it happens and prepare.
Many people are prepared at home with kits of water and those cracker and cheese sticks that will never ever expire. My dad even bought a raft to get across the river when everything goes hell bound. The problem is that, as students, we spend a good majority of our time in OES. I don’t keep an emergency earthquake kit in my locker and for all the worrying I hear from my peers, neither do they. In fact, the earthquake drill that we do have seems to be pretty lackluster. If I’m on the third floor of the Upper School and a 9.0 earthquake hits and I hide under a plastic table, I fully expect to be crushed.
I asked Jon von Behren — director of facilities at OES — how the focus towards emergency preparedness has shifted as the earthquake came into the forefront this summer. He told me we’ve had a plan for the earthquake for 15 years. Before paging, OES used whistles to signify an earthquake. During the Spring Break Quake, about ten years ago, Oregon experienced a minor earthquake but not all students showed up to be counted. Von Behren reported that teachers came up to him saying, “I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t hear the whistle.” Since then, OES has modified techniques but we still have more to do.
He told me that there is a new comprehensive plan in the works that will go further into depth on the areas of responsibility, cross trainings between divisions, and more. There are about 50 people currently working on this project. There are efforts to increase the depth of the program by increase training for teachers, including a small stock of water and supplies at SPARC, installing a rotating sleep schedule, and regularly changing out food.
The buildings at OES are another interesting aspect. Codes for earthquake protection in buildings have changed enormously over time as awareness of the danger has dawned on people. The new Lower School will be built to an entirely different set of codes than the Upper School. About six years ago, OES hired an engineering firm to conduct an analysis of the older buildings. Some buildings were deemed high priority for changes and other medium priority. The changes to high priority buildings (such as the beginning school, lower school, gym, and chapel) were implemented, and while some changes were made to medium priority buildings, the safest place on campus might be hiding with Preschoolers.
In terms of the existing plan, it turns out that getting to the field is probably one of the most vital components. The field is where all the supplies are stored. They are kept in a green container that the lacrosse wall is built on. Inside are sealed boxes of things one would typically expect to find such as high protein foods (changed out for expiration dates), first aid kits, sanitation, search and rescue supplies, and space blankets. Then there are the stacks of alarming yellow caution tape rolls, stretchers, canopies, chairs, foam mats for sleeping, leather gloves, hard hats, dust masks, and goggles. There is also (my personal favorite) an inconspicuous cardboard box filled with neon colored fleece hats. These supplies are enough to last the school for 72 hours on campus.
In the words of Rebecca Williams, Safety Coordinator, “We’re not there yet, but we’re better than we were.” There will never be a final plan for OES emergency preparation because if plans just sit on a shelf, they become useless. We can only continue to pay attention to how safety procedures are changing and do our best to keep up with them. Oh, and you may also consider a small emergency supply kit (raft included) in your locker.