When the Big One Hits Portland, Cargo Bikers Will Save You

The Pacific Northwest is due for a massive quake. I trained to help rescue efforts in the aftermath—by racing around the city on an electric kid hauler.

THE ROSE FESTIVAL is Portland, Oregon’s biggest event of the year. There’s a waterfront carnival, a flower show, car races, and footraces. The marquee event is the Grand Floral Parade, a mile-long flower flotilla that stretches from one end of downtown to the other. And yet somehow—I blame Covid—I’d completely forgotten about it while racing across the city. I come to a dead stop on my electric cargo bike and shout “Oh my God!” in front of a large float with dancers in big flowered dresses blasting Latin music. People carrying lawn chairs and coolers stream around me. A cop looks on sympathetically.

I’m dirty, tired, and frazzled. Mud crusts my shins, my wet hiking boots, and my stretchy cycling outfit. Lashed on to my bike’s rear rack is an orange 5-gallon bucket along with a pannier containing rocks, a compass, a whistle, a grease pencil, and my rain jacket—which I don’t need, because I’m already drenched from exertion and anxiety. I’m in the final stretch of the Disaster Relief Trials, a 30-mile bike race wrapped in an apocalyptic post-earthquake scenario, and after hours of riding I’m stuck at a standstill. Everything’s OK, though—or at least, that’s what I’m telling myself. In a race like this, having things not go to plan is just part of the exercise.

The race is designed to simulate the conditions after a major disaster, and because this is Portland, that disaster will probably be the Big One: the magnitude 9.0-or-so earthquake that has a one-in-three chance of leveling the Pacific Northwest in the next half-century. I’ve lived in Portland for 15 years, long enough to know that most people prep for the quake to some degree. There are only around 12,000 first responders in the entire state of Oregon, but Portland alone is home to 650,000 residents. In other words, the first person to realize you’re trapped in the upper story of your rickety wood-framed house probably won’t be the professionally trained EMT who answers a 911 call. It will be your neighbor poking her head out of the window and grabbing a ladder out of the garage.

My daughter’s teachers were going to hand her a photo and a juice box, in the middle of a city in ruins, and tell her everything was going to be OK? Yeah, no.

I never doubted my own ability to be that neighborhood hero. I did things like run 20 miles and scale rock cliffs for fun. For years, my own garage has been lined with milk crates full of backpacking and camping equipment the same portable stoves and water bottles that the Oregon Office of Emergency Management recommends having on hand if you want to survive for two weeks off the grid. My husband lived through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina sitting on the beach for weeks, eating FEMA-distributed MREs. I figured that the weeks post-Big One would look similar, assuming we wouldn’t get crushed by the many teetering book piles around our house.

Adrienne So

But then we had a kid, and after her first birthday we enrolled her in daycare. As I flipped through the parent handbook, skimming the guidelines on nut-free snacks and religious holidays, my eye stopped on page 19: emergency supplies. The instructions told me to pack boxed drinks, diapers, an emergency blanket, a jar of high-protein food, and a plastic poncho, all of which the school would store in a watertight container. The final item was a photograph of our family. “Add an encouraging note!” the handbook suggested.

I gamely found a blank card in my filing cabinet, printed out a picture, and started writing. “Hi baby!” I began, then stopped. What do you say to your toddler in the aftermath of a catastrophe? My daughter’s teachers were going to hand her a photo and a juice box, in the middle of a city in ruins, and tell her everything was going to be OK? Yeah, no. I would inflate a dinghy with my own lungs, I would paddle through flames, I would cross miles of smoking rubble to get to her.

Slowly, I started to make a plan. First, my husband and I had another baby, a son. We moved to a new house within walking distance of our kids’ school. I bought a 50-gallon water barrel. I pinged our neighborhood group chat to keep tabs on who had an emergency generator and vegetable garden. Then my husband—himself a bit of a catastrophist—started to fret that I wasn’t fast enough on my human-powered bike and trailer to pull our two toddlers  out of harm’s way. So I bought an electric cargo bike., a cheery yellow Tern GSD S00 that my daughter, then 5, named Popsicle.

I learned about the Disaster Relief Trials from a friend earlier this year. The race is designed to mimic four days of chaos after catastrophe hits. It has the format of an alleycat, a type of unsanctioned street race that bike messengers ride in, with checkpoints all over the city and a laminated map on which race volunteers mark off tasks after they are completed. In the DRT, each of the tasks takes the form of obstacles that people volunteering relief in a disaster might encounter: rough terrain to traverse, rubble to clear, messages to deliver, water to carry. As in a real disaster, we won’t know what the route is or what we need to do until we’re handed our maps an hour before the start.

Popsicle is the perfect commuter ebike for a mom with two kids. Other than my husband, I can’t imagine a better companion for the apocalypse.

After the Big One, bridges will collapse. Debris, damaged roads, and a lack of fuel will make it impossible for emergency vehicles to pass. A bike, though, can go almost anywhere. In the decade since it was founded, the DRT has evolved from an event run mostly by pedal punks to a training exercise for the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. Neighborhood emergency response teams work the race to serve their volunteer hours. As I read the website, I realized that I’d been preparing for this for years. I had a bike; I was ready. I signed up. It was only after a half-dozen people pointed out that I’d be carrying my own body weight in gear that I started to wonder whether I really could be the hero I thought I was.

Mike Cobb, the founder of the Disaster Relief Trials, is a former bike mechanic. He got the idea for the race after watching footage of the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake. Bikes, he thought, could help solve a major transportation problem. After I signed up, I emailed Cobb with the frank admission that I had no idea how to load clunky gear onto my bike. He told me to meet him the following Tuesday in Cully Park, where the race starts and ends, at what he calls his weekly coffee klatch.

When I showed up on Popsicle, Cobb and some former participants were standing around the picnic tables. He offered me a hot coffee and an assortment of about 12 alternative milks. Cobb has unruly dark hair, a grizzled beard, and is lean in a sinewy, rubber-bandy biker way. His sense of humor, I soon learn, is bone-dry. He refers to me, his face completely deadpan, as “the embedded reporter.” 

Founder of Disaster Relief Trials Mike Cobb on his bike.

A bike is a highly personal piece of equipment, and Popsicle is the perfect commuter ebike for a mom with two kids. Other than my husband, I can’t imagine a better companion for the apocalypse. It’s a pedal-assist bike sans throttle. Its wheels are small and its center of gravity is low, which means I can carry a lot of weight without tipping over. Its also compact—the same length as a road bike—so I can lift it over and around barriers. I’m not worried about it falling on me while we struggle through rough terrain, or about it failing to climb big hills, especially after I add a second battery.

I love Popsicle, but as I was seeing it through Cobb’s eyes I suddenly became aware of its shortcomings. It’s low to the ground, so it doesn’t get much clearance, and it’s heavy. Under Cobb’s tutelage, I gingerly wrapped cam buckle straps around a bucket and cinched it to Popsicle’s rack. Cobb lent me a kitchen mat as a secure cushion for a splintery shipping pallet that I balanced on the bike’s deck. Finally, I fixed everything in place with small, stretchy straps. As I pulled the straps tight, Popsicle almost fell over. I felt a little overwhelmed. I am just over five feet tall, and the bike and gear together amounted to more than 100 pounds. It occurred to me that I was more accustomed to hauling kid backpacks and groceries.

I wondered aloud whether I should switch to a pedal bike and trailer. Cobb did not disagree; clearly, my wobbly performance did not inspire confidence. When I finally worked up the courage to swing my leg over the bike for a test ride, Cobb retreated to a safe distance and shouted, “It will feel weird until you hit 8 miles per hour!”

I’d been wrong to doubt Popsicle, though. When I downshifted and put my foot on the pedal, power surged through the bike. Within a few pedal strokes, I was going fast enough to feel stable.

Every rider who completes the DRT’s full circuit gets a fun sticker that tells their neighborhood emergency team that they’ve gotten some emergency training. My next step was to see whether my own NET would find my skills useful. I looked this up the same way I do everything else—by posting to the local moms’ Facebook group and saying “Hello! Is anyone here in the NET!”

I love my neighborhood. Enthusiasm for my neighborhood makes up about 80 percent of my personality. It’s a quiet collection of wood-framed buildings originally built by workers at the nearby docks and manufacturing plants. The writers, musicians, pensioners, stay-at-home moms, bartenders, and pizza chefs who live here now haven’t yet been priced out. Our lawns may be a little rocky and weedy, but they’re lived-in—full of wild roses, clotheslines, toys, and strange statues. My grocery store, dive bar, coffee shop, post office, and pet store are all within a mile of my house.

My neighborhood is also uniquely vulnerable to earthquakes. We’re tucked into a narrow peninsula between two rivers, surrounded by trees, shipping yards, and an  Amazon Fulfilment center. A deep gully known as The Cut chops us off from the rest of the city. There are several bridges that span it, but in an earthquake those bridges will either fall down or become impassable, and we’ll be isolated. When a major earthquake hits, the park next to our community center will serve as our official gathering spot; you’re supposed to come there to ask the NET for help, or offer it. We’ll have to coordinate with each other to figure out how to get people and supplies back and forth around The Cut.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.