Seismic Justice: Benton Courthouse Quake Will Kill

Courthouseby Maggie Nelson

On this week’s theoretical forecast, the Benton County Courthouse is foreseen collapsing to rubble in a 6.0 earthquake.

If you do a Google image search for “Corvallis, OR,” you’ll find pictures of pensive hikers posed in front of lush backdrops, Oregon State University, Winco—not sure what that is all about—and the iconic Benton County Courthouse. The Benton County Courthouse is a landmark for the community and true Corvallisites are darn proud of this structure. Constructed in 1888, the Benton County Courthouse is the oldest active courthouse in Oregon and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. It’s a monument this community identifies with and is identified by.

Cannot Withstand a 6.0 Quake

As far back as 2001, however, it was made clear to Benton County that the courthouse would not be structurally sound in the instance of an earthquake. Between 2001 and 2002, Endex Engineering performed a study which revealed that the courthouse, although considered structurally sound for its age, is unfit for seismic resistance. The study revealed that under seismic pressure, “the building would not perform to the Life Safety level.” In other words, when Corvallis is shaken by a sizable earthquake—which it is due for, based on the average number of earthquakes in the Cascadia Subduction Zone—the courthouse is going down and likely taking the lives of those jurors and bystanders and civil servants inside with her.

Stepping into the courthouse, the evidence of structural neglect is striking. Stairwells, mortar, and doorways seem to bend and crack under the weight and movement of the building right before your eyes. But if this lack of attention is so evident, you may be wondering why no one has done anything to fix the poor ole gal up and possibly avoid fatalities and future lawsuits. The answer, unfortunately, is not a simple one, and indeed no single person nor entity is to blame. It would also not be fair to refer to this simply as neglect—rather more a problem within bureaucracy and the slight issue of a $4 to $8 million cost estimate.

Concerns Renewed

This year, on Jan. 15 a Structural Integrity Stakeholders Meeting was held to discuss the current structural status of the courthouse and future plans for getting the building into proper seismic ready status… or maybe it was just to discuss how unlikely the latter is as a plausible outcome. Either way, via a flashy and informative PowerPoint, Josh Wheeler, Corvallis Public Works Department director, made it quite clear that the “building is not structurally sound for seismic conditions.”

Wheeler and Joe McCormick, a consultant from Pillar Consulting, a local engineering firm that performed a walk-through of the courthouse last fall, further discussed topics such as “Life Safety” of the building, what fantastic condition the courthouse is in for its age, and ways to avoid the stagnancy that has plagued any serious action from being taken thus far. The toughest issue seems to be the cost. According to Wheeler, there is very little money available for restoring the courthouse, and getting that money is an entirely different and more challenging problem when there are health facilities and jails in the county which also require funds and attention.

In terms of stability, the courthouse is a safe building…on a day-to-day basis. According to an assessment done in 2008 comparing Oregon’s courthouses, we aren’t looking too shabby.

“Benton County’s courthouse was 15th best out of 48 courthouses with respect to its Life Safety rating [a rating of 3.67 out of 5, where the lowest county had a rating of 1.0],” said Wheeler.

In an attempt to compensate for the inability to take action, Wheeler argued that “Many of the courthouses [as well as bridges, buildings, etc.] throughout the state of Oregon have risks associated with a seismic event.” While this is a valid statement, perhaps we should not boast about how well we hold up appearances, and take some necessary and possibly lifesaving changes instead. After all, this is a building that sometimes requires one’s presence by law, like for small claims actions and jury duty.

Any Hope of Action?

Wheeler is not an antagonist here. He’s not necessarily individually to blame; in fact, the issue truly lies far out of his reach. He is, however, putting forth some effort to take action, like putting the courthouse’s facility maintenance person on what I’ve deemed “crack watch.” According to Wheeler, “The cracks are being watched on a daily basis.” Don’t worry folks, someone who is definitely qualified to analyze seismic activity and preparation is ensuring those cracks don’t split town.

Beyond crack watch, Wheeler promises an analysis of the building which will be evaluated on three levels ranging from safety of those inside the building to overall stability of the courthouse.

“The analysis will create conceptual designs and cost estimates to provide the board with anticipated costs of improvements,” added Wheeler.

From here another stakeholders meeting may be held, sometime around mid-spring, then the conceptual designs and a cost estimate will be provided for the County Board to make a final decision as to how much funding will be given, if any. This process may take anywhere from 6 to 12 months, according to Wheeler. No company has been signed on as of yet to provide the analysis, in which case, we can probably count on a time estimate closer to 12 months.

Considering Wheeler and the rest of the Public Works Department seem to be doing what they can, within reason, I believe they need community support rather than prosecution.

If any real changes are to be taken this time around, the County Board needs to be convinced that it’s worth the $4 to $8 million in renovations and structural reinforcement, and worth denying money to other county buildings and facilities. Let’s hope that in the meantime the Cascadia Subduction Zone doesn’t get dosed with its overdue quake and our beloved courthouse stays standing.