Monday, August 17, 2015

What Happens When the 'Big One' Hits?

How much would this view of downtown change if
'The Big One' were to hit?
Ever wonder, fellow bus drivers, what it would be like if The Big One hit Portland? According to seismologists, we're due for a major earthquake in the Northwest. A big 'un, so they say. And when it happens, things are gonna be a mess.

A fellow driver asked me if I knew our transit agency's plan in case of a disaster. I don't, and I doubt if the talking heads do either. It would be pretty chaotic, to say the least, if disaster struck our fair city. When you consider there are hundreds of buses out at any point every day, we would be the eyes and ears for emergency crews needing to know what routes remain undamaged and/or passable. Depending on the time of year, we could have our buses utilized as shelters or first aid stations.

Chances are, if an earthquake of major proportions strikes this part of the world, we're in for a lot of devastation. Scientists lately have been really talking this up, and it's a major concern for many of us. However, I haven't heard much in the way of disaster planning from our city leaders or, disturbingly so, from our own transit agency.

Earthquakes, to my limited knowledge, shake the hell out of everything. Bridges collapse, freeways become impassable, tsunamis tear up the coast. People are stranded, their homes demolished, cell towers are inoperable and we're unable to contact loved ones. And of course, many are injured or killed.

So, what if? I could be tooling along on my route on a rainy winter's night when all of a sudden the road starts moving side-to-side. I slow down and stop, but things are still moving. Everyone on the bus is scared. Bridges are swaying, some of them collapse. A huge fissure opens a few feet in front of my bus and we start sliding down toward the Willamette River. Whoa, what the hell?

First, I'd want to make sure my passengers and I are as safe as possible. Unless we're upside down or under water, I'd urge people to remain inside. A bus weighs 20 tons and is about as structurally safe as anything you could find in that situation. With powerlines likely down all over, I'd hate for someone to run screaming from my safe haven right into a human cookout. If our radio system remains online, I'd have instant communications with Dispatch and therefore the rest of Portlandia. We'd most likely sit tight and offer refuge to any wandering or injured souls who venture near.

Most of our bridges were built before codes were in place for ensuring building stability in case of earthquake. They will likely collapse. Except for our new Tillikum Crossing, which also has water lines running on it. The new Sellwood Bridge, if complete, is engineered with a large subduction event possibility in mind. For the most part though, our roads and bridges will likely be out of commission for months, even years.

Depending on the scope of the damage wrought to our fair city, we could be stranded for days. How would we survive? There are no emergency provisions on board, except for the snacks and water I keep in my backpack. We're not allowed to keep weapons on our person, so we'd be at the mercy of any crazed survivalist wanting to score notches in his gun. I'm sorry, but the thought of fighting off a lunatic armed with a fire extinguisher gives me the willies. The possibilities of nightmare scenarios abound. Finding out if our loved ones are secure will be vital to us all.

Road conditions here suck, in the best of conditions. The idea of anyone "evacuating" in an emergency is a sick joke. We would all be worried sick about our loved ones, hungry and tense. While buses can run a whole day on the fuel on board, once it's gone the comfort zone disappears. Once conditions become safe enough, we could all be facing a long walk home.

The City of Portland has thought of the 'what ifs', and they have a very informative and helpful preparedness guide ('The Big One' Survival Guide). I have not been able to find anything put out by TriMet as of the publication of this post regarding bus operations, but there is a Standard Operating Procedure for Rail Ops (SOP055).

Surely my readers have wondered this same 'what if'. If our transit agency has, it's a secret to me. I'm curious to know what our southern neighbors in California have to say about transit worker preparedness. I'll bet at least one reader has dealt with emergency situations in their community. If you have, please feel free to contact me via this blog (comments), email ( or on FaceBook (Deacon Blue).

Except for my fellow operators, I doubt if any management from our transit agency will venture to offer any info, but I'd love to hear it.

In the meantime I'll just keep on tooling along, ready for whatever happens.


  1. Good should ask your manager what they plan to do in the event of a major earthquake. Do they have water, food, generators etc. at the garages for the operators and employees that will inevitably be stranded at the garage away from their loved ones. I will approach you to talk more on this subject.

  2. In the 15 years I worked at Trimet I never heard a thing about disaster preparedness.

  3. Deacon,

    Please follow up with management and ask for classes, info on this. Education is key. Who would know what to do? I hated that shake up we had from NM. It was very scary. At home you also should have some kind of plan in mind.

  4. Talking disaster preparedness doesn't sell tickets. That's why you won't hear this kind of thing from official channels. There are, however, disaster, mass casualty, and first responder plans, annual drills, and training events as required by the feds. Occasionally, they'll even blow up an old, retired-from-service bus at one of these. Last one that got publicized was after hurricane Sandy, if memory serves. I also remember the coverage of our preparedness training event after 911.