Can Coastal Communities Survive A Tsunami?

Jan 21, 2015
Originally published on January 27, 2015 12:00 am

This story is part of a series Oregon Public Broadcasting is doing on how well the Northwest is prepared for the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that scientists say will hit along the Cascadia Subduction Zone just off the Pacific Coast.

In this piece we consider:

Communities up and down the Oregon Coast have known about the threat of a tsunami for years.

A distant tsumani hit in 1964 -- after an earthquake in Alaska. The main street through Cannon Beach was flooded and four campers at Beverly Beach State Park died after logs carried by the advancing water crushed them.

Now, recent scientific research and images of Japanese towns being inundated after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami have Oregon officials proposing tsunami zones that push deeper and deeper inland.

An analysis of state data by OPB found about a third of schools, hospitals, police and fire stations along the Oregon coast are within a potential tsunami zone. About 85 structures sit within the proposed regulatory line.

Some coastal communities are better prepared than others.

One reason is geography -- some towns have lots of high, flat, buildable ground, outside the tsunami zone. Other towns are squeezed on slivers of low-lying land between the ocean and steep hills.

Still, efforts to raise the money to move schools, fire stations and hospitals have been more successful in some places than others.

When it comes to tsunamis, Seaside is one of Oregon's most vulnerable cities -- according to a 2007 paper by the U.S. Geological Survey. It sits on a long, flat area, right next to the ocean -- which means 80 percent of residents live only 15 feet above sea level -- or lower.

Local school district superintendent Doug Dougherty has worked in Seaside 33 years and remembers organizing a tsunami drill in the mid 1990s.

"And I found out fairly quickly that we were the first school along the West Coast of the states that had put into place evacuation drills for a school," he said.

He got attention from Portland television stations, National Geographic and the state. Locals also started asking questions, specifically: Why is the tsunami zone at 38 feet above sea level?

That's the level established by Oregon's Department of Geology and Mineral Industries in 1995.

In an effort to try and answer the community's questions, Dougherty corralled local towns to commission a study from George Priest, a geologist at DOGAMI.

That was in 2004. It was meant to take a couple of months.

"And two weeks into the study, I remember a phone call that I received from George saying 'Doug, we're finding things that we did not anticipate and this is going to take a lot longer that we originally thought,' " Dougherty said.

Eventually, DOGAMI found that tsunamis could reach 70 feet or more in Seaside. And the report sparked the agency to look at inundation zones in other coastal towns too.

By 2013, Seaside School District sponsored a $128 million bond measure to move schools to higher ground.

But, it failed. And Gerhardt Elementary, Broadway Middle School and Seaside High remain on land less than 15 feet above sea level.

"We heard over and over again, 'Shouldn't the state and the federal government, shouldn't they contribute to this?' It is a huge lift for our community," said Dougherty. "But we're not getting any help at this point."

That's a sentiment that can be heard in communities up and down Oregon's coast.

In 2002, Oregonians did approve a measure to spend up to $1 billion to retrofit schools, police, hospitals and fire stations. But Senate president, Peter Courtney, concedes the money has been slow to materialize. "We've had a heck of a time trying to sell the bonds because they require the authorization of the legislature,” he said.

So far, the Legislature has authorized only $75 million of the $1 billion for seismic programs. That's just seven-and-a-half percent of the money in more than 12 years. In addition, the money can only be used to renovate existing buildings, not to move them.

Ryan Frank with Oregon's Infrastructure Finance Authority says the state has no grant programs that help communities move existing buildings.

Senator Courtney says people have a hard time prioritizing something that only happens once every few hundred years.

"Everybody wants to do something about it, but just not now,” he said. “ And I think that happens in life."

Still, some coastal communities have had success by combining their finances with nearby jurisdictions.

In 2011, at the height of the recession, residents in Lincoln City, Newport, Toledo and Waldport came together to pass a $63 million bond measure.

Standing in the car park of the old Waldport High, Lincoln County School District spokeswoman MaryJo Kerlin points to an open field.

"As you look around, you can see there is no high school here any longer. It's been demolished," she said.

A short drive up hill, she stands in front of the brand new Waldport High.

"We are extremely proud of this building."

It's an impressive facility with a new football field and baseball diamond. There's even a cache of supplies stored in the school, so locals will have first aid kits and something to eat and drink if there's a tsunami.

Now that Waldport High has been moved, all the districts' 11 school buildings are located outside of the proposed tsunami zone.

So the question is: How did Lincoln County manage to pass a bond, when other communities have failed?

Kerlin says one way was to promise that a large portion of the bond money would be spent locally.

"We were billing it sort of as a county stimulus package," Kerlin said.

"I have talked to contractors since then, I've run into them in the grocery story and they say: 'Thank you so much, the work the school district gave us, helped us through a very rough time.' "

Rich Belloni, director of support services for the school district, says timing also played a role. The district secured federal stimulus money while it was still available and made sure that the bond proposal was the only one on the ballot for that election.

Belloni says they also timed the new bond to the sunset of another bond, "I was asked a lot of times: 'You're telling me that we will not have any new taxes, that they will not go up?' And I said: 'Yes. That's what we're promising you.' "

Finally says Belloni, the school district kept the bond small and limited it to 15 years -- so all the buildings could be paid off quickly.

"I think that's really key for people," said Belloni. "Because that's what might be happening in other cities, where they've got a 30-year bond or a 50-year bond."

So Belloni says, tsunami preparation is possible, even in the middle of a recession.

Back in Seaside, Superintendent Dougherty said that in addition to some of the local funding options, there are other things the state could do to speed up change in coastal communities.

For example, the current law says new essential facilities, likes schools and hospitals, should not be placed within a tsunami zone. That doesn't mean they can't be placed there, according to DOGAMI.

"One piece that could be helpful I believe, is that if the law had more teeth in it," said Dougherty.

In fact, the state does not have the final say on whether buildings can be located within a tsunami zone. That decision falls to the local building codes official, a job Dougherty says can be very political in a small town.

"In most communities, there are people who do not want to be the bad person and say that something has to happen," said Dougherty. "Especially when there is a large price tag to it."

Further South, in Yachats, Frankie Petrick is chief of the Fire Protection District.

She says the community's station is 65 years old. It's so small that fire officials have had to order special equipment that can fit into the building. So they want to expand. And the building sits just 20 feet above sea level.

Petrick says the Fire Protection Board is in the middle of deciding whether to go for a bond to pay for a new building.

"We're right now looking at what do we have to do," she said. "We have to have an adviser and an attorney to look at the legal end of it and then we have to find a parcel to put our building on."

She says the board already has its eye on one location, but it's mighty close to where a worst case tsunami would reach. "Your toes will get wet, but not your ankles," said Petrick.

So Yachats is right in the midst of grappling with the question that different coastal communities have to face: Should we be moving our essential public buildings out of the tsunami zone? Will the landscape allow us to do that in a way that makes sense? And are we willing to pay for that?

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