Courting disaster

Words by Adam Newman, photos by Howard Draper

This is it. The Big One. With no warning the Cascadia Subduction Zone begins to shift, resulting in a massive earthquake and tsunami that ravishes the Pacific Northwest. In Portland bridges are unsafe to cross, gasoline is being rationed and electricity is spotty. Luckily the city is filled with cyclists who can transport water, food, medicine and other relief supplies quickly and easily.

Ok, so the massive earthquake that threatens Western Oregon hasn’t happened yet, but if or when it does the local cycling community will be well prepared thanks to events like the Disaster Relief Trials (DRT). A checkpoint-based bike race with a cargo-hauling twist, it’s designed to promote resilience in the face of the inescapable. In a handful of cities on the West Coast, the event simulates a supply run on cargo bikes (or whatever bike can handle the load).

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I joined dozens of other first responders, cargo bike fanatics and curious participants for the Portland edition of DRT, which fanned out 30 miles across the city. From a central hub we raced to checkpoints where we picked up supplies including a case of food, a big bucket of water, a wooden pallet and a fragile egg. Along the way we had our manifest checked off and our cargo inspected. Different categories separated payload weights along with e-bikes or team efforts.

Cooperation was key in many respects, of- ten for route finding but also to lift the bikes over a four-foot wall and push them through a difficult uphill dirt section. All the participants were eager to help each other and the volunteers manning the checkpoints were helpful and friendly.

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The variety in bicycles represented was astounding. I’ve certainly never seen such a collection of longtails, bakfiets, trailers and trikes. Most were Yubas, Bullets and Surlys but there were also quite a few handmade bikes. I borrowed a beautiful, Portland-made Metrofiets for the event and, despite my limited experience piloting such a craft, it turned out to be a great platform for the day. Even with a massive front end, the bike handled well and shrugged off my 100 pound payload. All I had to do was pedal—and remember that the Shimano Alfine 8 shifter is backward…

Event founder Mike Cobb said he felt a wave of emotions after an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010. While the quake itself was unpredictable, the secondary disaster of homelessness, famine and disease that followed was entirely preventable. Fueled by “anguish motivation,” Cobb knew he had to do something. Intimately involved with the with cargo bike com- munity (Cobb’s day job is at Splendid Cycles, a Portland-based cargo bike shop) he began to brainstorm how a cargo bike democratizes disaster relief. Professional disaster response teams are reliant on infrastructure to complete their duties, but bicycles can aid in citizen-led community resistance.

“I was suddenly struck with incredulity,” he said. “Why aren’t cargo bikes considered a top tool of community disaster resilience? Why isn’t ‘Do your neighbors have cargo bikes?’ one of the common questions posed to communities seeking resilience?”

“There are always resources not too far away from a given disaster but the normal infrastructure that allows you to transport recovery resources is usually destroyed and there is never a budget big enough to have emergency tools in place to overcome all infrastructure obstacles with a motor when the time comes. I just envisioned a decentralized approach in addition to the massive traditional approaches.”

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Cobb said that most people’s supplies will run out after about three days, and “Day 4” supply runs are where bicycles excel. Whether it’s fetching clean drinking water from a community drop point or providing pedal power to charge radios, lights and mobile phones, cargo bicycles are perfectly suited to infrastructure-independent self support.

“They are inexpensive, small and light, they require very little maintenance, and so they lend themselves to mass distribution across the landscape,” he said. But Cobb knew getting buy-in from policymakers would be difficult.

“I know most of the civil servant decision makers view bikes as toys,” he said. “I knew that the first task for making the case for cargo bikes’ relevance in disaster recovery was to display their abilities in dramatic style and to stimulate design technique by hosting a race. Competition is always a great way to stimulate design and technique, and I knew nobody was really working on optimizing cargo bikes for disaster recovery.”

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After a few years the event started to get the attention Cobb wanted. He secured sponsorships from the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management and assistance from FEMA’s Region 10 that covers Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska. Partnerships with Portland’s Neighborhood Emergency Teams and San Francisco’s Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams blossomed. Founded after the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, these community-based groups train and equip volunteers to take the lead in disaster situations and keep a small cache of tools and supplies.

“A cargo bike leverages the NET abilities by allowing you to survey your neighborhood faster, distribute tools and materials faster and by allowing you to go outside of your neighborhood to collect resources and bring them back to your neighborhood,” Cobb said. In the future he hopes cargo bike volunteers will get priority for training and given extra responsibilities suited to their bike.

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The Disaster Relief Trials is expanding to Memphis, Tennessee, this year, and organizer Cort Percer explained that not even his city is safe from seismic activity.

“Memphis is in the heart of the New Madrid Seismic Zone in which the last major activity of 8.1 magnitude was said to have rang bells in Boston. The zone is predicted to erupt every 200 to 300 years. The last major quake was in 1811.”

The city isn’t waiting around for that to happen before it gets to work. Percer said the response from local emergency management agencies has been positive and the event is attracting national sponsors.

“I think of bicycles and the DRT like an 8 mm Allen key,” Percer said. “Not every multi-tool has an 8 mm Allen, but when you need it not much else will suffice. And the 8 mm is a part of the whole, along with the Office of Preparedness, the Office of Emergency Management, FEMA, the Red Cross, the fire department, the parks department, the faith-based community, etc. They all make up the multi-tool.”

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Of course, racing full speed around the city with a giant pallet strapped to your bike doesn’t really simulate the hazards and challenges of an actual disaster situation, but it does help the visibility of the cycling community as a resource that should be considered in disaster planning. On hand were emergency personnel and first responders from several local agencies were practicing communication and operations while a disaster relief information fair was being held next door.

At the end of the day I was exhausted, sore and satisfied. I certainly hope I never have to put any of the experience I gained into use in an actual emergency but, in the meantime, I had a lot of fun.

“Fun is one of the most powerful ingredients in advocacy,” Cobb said. “Advocacy that’s entertaining is powerful.”

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