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Fatal Tsunami Hit Oregon Coast 50 Years Ago

Cannon Beach Historical Society

This week marks 50 years since a lethal tsunami hit Oregon's shores. A lot has changed since then.

Fifty years ago, here at Beverly Beach, on a star-lit night, the McKenzie family, from Tacoma, was camping in a lean-to. A tsunami took away their children. A magnitude nine quake off Alaska in 1964 generated a series of waves that grew dramatically higher as they reached the coast four hours later.  In Cannon Beach, the downtown was flooded and houses floated away.  Peter Lindsey watched from high ground:

"There was  suddenly this quiet hissing and drawback of the water receding toward the ocean and then it began approaching the shoreline again and it was like a hundred freight trains.  You could hear logs crashing and gnashing up against one another and they rumbled around at the foot of the point and shook the earth."

Lincoln County Commissioner Terry Thompson, a fisherman, had been out to sea after the tsunami.  He docked in Crescent City, California, and had a look around:

"It was like a bomb went off in Crescent City.  There was only one cement building left standing and the rest of it was just flattened."

There were five deaths in Oregon, the four kids at Beverly Beach and a woman who died of a heart attack in Seaside, and ten in Crescent City.  It had an impact on Sue Graves' family in Depoe Bay:

"I remember as a child, my family, we had a tsunami plan. If we feel an earthquake we're going to jump into the station wagon and high-tail it up to the top of Cullen Street, which was the highest point in Depoe Bay, and if we're not near the car, we're all gonna run up there and meet there."

The state has now mapped the entire coast, outlining tsunami inundation zones--some for a distantly triggered tsunami like the one in 1964, the rest stretching further inland in case of a near offshore quake. Ian Madin, chief scientist for the Oregon Department of Geology, says there have also been geological changes:

"During that intervening 50 years, the coast has moved about six feet to the northeast.  The Oregon coast is actually stuck to the ocean floor and the whole thing is moving toward the northeast at a couple of inches per year, and that fact that it is moving is what is going to cause an earthquake in the future."

Research from Oregon State University, based on evidence of quakes here over thousands of years, says there's a

Credit Cannon Beach Historical Society

37-percent chance of a major earthquake from Newport south to Eureka, California and up to a 20-percent chance north to Astoria in the next 50 years.   The Oregon Resiliency Plan says a magnitude 9 quake could result in up to 10-thousand deaths. Still, we're far better prepared for that quake and resulting tsunami now than 50 years ago.  I jumped into Terry Thompson's pick-up and we drove near Newport's oceanfront, where poles are marked with blue and red tape:

"Here's a red one so that's in the zone, see? So you just know if you're in a red zone you need to get to a blue zone. Fairly simple. In case of a near-shore earthquake that creates a tsunami, the shaking of the ground is going to tell you it's time. The second you feel the shaking, you got  14, 15, 18 minutes to get to high ground. You better start walking."

County emergency management systems have created reverse 9-1-1 systems to call residents and door-to-door notification in the event of distant quakes.  Many communities have tsunami escape routes with signs and assembly areas. Lincoln City and Depoe Bay have sirens. Cannon Beach has loudspeakers comprising the Coastal Warning System, or COWS:

"This is a test....mooooo."

Efforts have been made to move schools out of inundation zones. A bond issue to move three Seaside School District schools out of tsunami danger zones failed. One to do the same in Lincoln County passed, and safety coordinator Sue Graves says that means all of the Lincoln County schools are out of the danger zone:

"We all sleep better at night."

Communities and school districts have also established caches of goods including tents, blankets, food and medical supplies:

"Here are the two containers we have for our Newport schools and they are 20-by-8 steel shipping containers and let's open them up and check 'em out. In this one, we have our 55 gallon barrels of water."

Speaking of water, 50 years ago in Cannon Beach there was no fresh water to be found. But Peter Lindsey says you could get a cup of coffee at June Sweeney's cafe:

"Her child had been preparing for a bath and she'd drawn the bath water for her son Hotsie and at the time of the tidal wave they left the home and when they got back, the water was still in the bathtub. So for the next three or four days she used the bath water for the coffee she served."

We may need that kind of innovation. A state report says in the event of a magnitude 9 quake and tsunami, water and electric service to some parts of the coast may be cut off for a year or more.

Copyright 2014 KLCC

Jacob Lewin
Jacob Lewin is a veteran radio journalist whose work has been featured on Morning Edition, Marketplace, the Northwest News Network, and Oregon Public Broadcasting as well as KLCC-FM/Eugene .