Catching the Wave

Business and government haggle over tsunami solutions before it’s too late.

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One day Patrick Corcoran ambled into the Tsunami Sandwich Company on Broadway Street in Seaside. He asked the cashier for his game plan if a real tsunami hit. The results disappointed him. “New rule,” he says. “You cannot have ‘tsunami’ in your business name if employees don’t know what to do.” (The company did not respond to a request for comment for this article.)

Although his official title is coastal natural hazards extension specialist with a resilience initiative called Oregon Sea Grant, you could call Corcoran the Cassandra of the Coast. He warns businesses and governments about the big one, the “one-two punch,” the magnitude 9.0 Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and subsequent tsunami that is overdue. Most of the time, he says, nobody listens.

Many business and government leaders know that preparations can’t wait. They’ve floated a host of policy proposals. But it’s an ethical juggling game. Ban fire departments in floodplains and how will they get to fires in the many buildings already standing there? Reinforced towers sound like easy evacuation points, but do they promote more development in danger zones?

Most people seem to agree on education, but whose job is that — local businesses or government? And who’s going to pay for lifesaving retrofitted bridges when the federal government won’t — hotels, tourists, citizens?  

All the while, the geologic clock is ticking.

Tom Horning, a geologist turned city councilor in Seaside, thinks midnight will strike in less than 20 years. It could happen in the next day, hour or minute. In his office, buried beneath the obligatory geologic maps, sparkling rock collection and mountain range of paperwork, he lays out the scenario. Out the window, one can almost see the floodwaters rushing up Neawanna Creek, taking the aging stone bridge that Horning says will surely collapse.

The worst-case scenario is an “XXL” Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, aka “the big one.” A severe quake of magnitude 9.0 or higher would rattle the coastline for between two and four minutes. Fifteen minutes later, a 25- to 90-foot tsunami wave would appear. It would flood 908 structures in Astoria, 760 in Newport and 1,804 in Cannon Beach.

An air raid-style siren will sound in Seaside, and 20 minutes later, up to 94% of its buildings will flood, including the fire department and City Hall. Seven bridges will crumble. If the wave hits the small tourist town during the peak summer season, around 23,500 people could die. Says Althea Rizzo, geologic hazards program coordinator at Oregon Emergency Management, “They have almost all infrastructure within the inundation zone. There will not be much of a community left.”

Old, young and poor people will face a literal uphill battle. Elders and people with disabilities will not sustain the 22-minute-per-mile brisk walk needed to reach the hills in time. Cannon Beach Elementary School, Astoria High School and half of Warrenton’s federally designated low-income housing all sit in the floodplain. Low-lying police and fire departments in Astoria, Cannon Beach and Seaside will be flooded and unable to help.

In Astoria, Fort George Brewery would go down, just like the hundreds of other unreinforced masonry buildings in Oregon. Evacuation would need to happen in minutes. The brewery’s co-founder Jack Harris says, “It would be really hard to get 2,000 people out of the buildings.”

Back in Seaside, Horning will grab his “go-bag” with camping equipment, water purification, and dried food for two weeks and flee to the hills. Those who trained for this moment will do the same.  

Tourists on the promenade will drop their waffle cones and follow the blue evacuation signs. If they try the bridge over Necanicum Creek on Broadway, they might fare better hopping in one of the duck-boat rentals below. One street north, the bridge over First Avenue will stand, allowing the crush of people to flee. They’ll pass the visitor center and the skate park, before crossing the retrofitted Neawanna Creek bridge to safety. Twenty minutes after the siren’s wail, they’ll reach the assembly area in Sunset Hills.

Click here to see Oregon Coast inundation maps.

That is, if they were inquisitive enough to talk to the bright-eyed visitor center employee who handed them an evacuation map and explained the siren. If they stayed at the Rivertide Suites on the evacuation route, they didn’t get a map unless they asked, because the staff didn’t want to “scare the crap” out of them, as a woman at the front desk told me. The Inn at Seaside doesn’t hand out maps or go-bags either. The staff are not trained in tsunami response.

Perhaps the least informed will be the City Center Motel patrons, where the woman at the front desk threw up her hands and told me, “Well, if you’re gonna go, you’re gonna go.”

The cheapest tsunami prevention is education: plastering maps and signs everywhere, and teaching the more than 35,000 employees working within the inundation zone what to do. Unfortunately, many tourist-facing businesses do not want to aid in this effort.

Corcoran says many of the businesses he tries to educate adopt a “defensive posture.” Small businesses fear he will scare their customers. The big chains, with their corporate training manuals, “just know better.”

“We’re all walking around with our Keens and Subarus, and we don’t even know about the most formative geological event in our region,” Corcoran says. “Business owners are humans, and humans don’t change their behavior for something they haven’t experienced.”

Unsurprisingly, most businesses I contacted for this story did not respond, and those that did had a plan in place. Tillamook Creamery teaches tourists about preparedness at its visitor center. The company maintains an uphill emergency shelter stocked with tents and other supplies. Management can send an alert to all employees in an emergency, and the volunteer firefighters at the plant form an emergency response team.

Fort George Brewery does not run a formal tsunami training or promote the risks to visitors. But the company does offer general emergency training and is submitting plans to architects for building retrofits. Harris, the co-founder, is interested in ramping up preparedness efforts. He keeps two weeks of food and water in his basement.

“I am constantly aware of it,” Harris says. “Where are the exits? How will we get out of the building? Its share of our minds is really high.”

Risk fatigue, the idea that people in hazard areas face mental exhaustion from being in a constant state of alertness, registers with many businesses and employees along the Coast. There are community lectures, constant chatter about the risks, events to stock supplies. In Astoria, Harris says, “you can’t turn around without somebody preaching tsunami awareness.”

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Few people know more than the scientists at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. Spokesman Mark Farley has even seen two job candidates bail on their plans to work there, citing tsunami risk. Others, he says, “need to walk the ground and understand how everyone else is dealing with it.”

Tourism ranks as one of the top industries on the Coast, but many hotels and motels seem unwilling to provide their guests or employees with basic tsunami preparations. Oregon Emergency Management offers a free online tsunami training course for hospitality professionals. Only about 100 people have taken it so far.

Local businesses in Seaside put the onus on government to solve the problem. One motel owner told Horning the business community shouldn’t have to pay for any tsunami supplies. The hotel staff I spoke to all pointed to the siren or other local government programs when asked what they were doing about tsunami education.

Horning ran for council on a one-plank platform: tsunami preparedness. He has prepared countless documents, maps and field trips for his fellow councilors and area business leaders. He’s disappointed that businesses do not seem willing to partner with the city on the effort. They are ignoring the needs of their customers, the tourists who visit Seaside with little knowledge of the impending disaster.

“Their people are the ones who are going to die if we don’t fix the bridges,” he says. “It pays for them to change their attitude.”

There are, of course, exceptions. The Ocean Inn in Manzanita provides go-bags in every room. The city of Seaside furnished hotels including Hi-Tide Ocean Beach Resort, the Rivertide Suites, the Ebb Tide Resort and the Sand & Sea Condominium with free keycard sleeves displaying tsunami-preparedness instructions.

Risk must be accepted as a part of everyday life, the tsunami educators say. The U.N. reports that 62% of all urban residents are at high risk of exposure to at least one kind of natural disaster. Basic education on this facet of daily life won’t scare away employees and customers.

In fact, it could do the opposite. The Hatfield Center changed its interview process to incorporate tsunami education right from the start. Most applicants accept the risk and take the job. Around 400 people work and study at the research facility.

As Farley puts it, “It’s stupid to think these people are stupid. You educate them and they’ll still come here.”

When the wave hits Newport, the sea lions will be rudely awoken from their naps, but across Yaquina Bay, 500 scientists, students and beer lovers will stand safe and dry atop a concrete island.

This is thanks to a $62 million “vertical evacuation structure” that Oregon State University recently completed at the Hatfield Center. Some see these engineering feats as the best defense against the wave. Others say they promote bad behavior by legitimizing development in the inundation zone.

The tower of classrooms and laboratories will bristle with defenses during the Cascadia earthquake. A dirt berm will slow the wave. Japanese-inspired concrete pilings and walls drilled 100 feet into the sand will thwart liquefaction. Anyone in the area — at the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, OMSI science camp or Rogue Brewery — will sprint up an exterior ramp to the roof. People who are injured or disabled will take the elevator, with its secondary power source.  

“It needs to survive an earthquake, have the first wave hit it, have retreating debris hit it again, then the next shockwave, and keep 500 people on the roof,” Farley says.

Some business and political leaders, like Rep. David Gomberg (D-Central Coast), champion erecting these towers all along the coastline. Gomberg owns a kite-manufacturing business on the Coast. He thinks the state should invest in more of this infrastructure to protect residents who can’t move out of the flood zone. Another funding avenue, Rizzo says, could be to follow Hawaii’s lead and allow hotels to build taller structures if they reinforce them for evacuation.

Still, Rizzo remains split on the value of the vertical evacuation towers. It depends on geography and demographics. “If you’re an elderly person visiting for the day, you may not be able to get up the hill,” she says. “But OSU could have been a leader in building out of the bad zone.”

Less equivocal, Corcoran describes the tower as “bargaining with the devil.” He says it sends a misguided message that development in the inundation zone can continue safely. He says the college could have built new classrooms and labs upland, near the community’s “safe-haven hill” evacuation point. Instead, the school chose to settle into familiar land-use patterns. The tower sends the message that building and living around it is safe, potentially inspiring more structures in the path of the floodwaters, he says.

“The more people in the inundation zone, the more dead people,” Corcoran says. “That’s the simple formula. It’s being touted as a demonstration of something smart. It’s absolutely going to kill people.”

Moving is not an option, Farley says, as the scientists are inextricably linked to the ocean. The 52-acre campus relies on pipes delivering fresh seawater to 23 labs. “To move away from the ocean would be to give up a critical aspect of the work, so we adapt.”

Along those lines, state agencies are working on controversial plans to ban new critical infrastructure in the tsunami’s path. Unlike Washington’s coastal communities, those in Oregon often have buildable land on nearby hills and mountains. But getting developers there means overcoming a primal tug toward the shorefront, and the inertia of well-developed neighborhoods already in the flatlands.

Through two federal grants totaling $530,000 and the help of coastal hazards specialist Meg Reed, a handful of staffers from the Department of Land Conservation and Development are working with 11 coastal cities to keep essential services out of harm’s way. In one example, Seaside recently decided to move its new elementary school to an upland site.

Gomberg is critical of these moves, claiming they will cripple economic development in coastal communities, besides being patently unsafe. “Most of our lower-income population is in the inundation zone,” Gomberg says. “So what happens when you have a policy that says we’re not going to build schools and fire departments in the neighborhood?”

Horning concurs that a development ban poses a sort of philosophical problem. If you put your fire department uphill, it will stand to respond to tsunami distress. But it might be too far from many of the fires in the community that flare up before then. Either way there are casualties.

Reed says there’s enough flexibility in the new plans to keep communities safe and business thriving. The guidelines make exceptions for police and fire stations, as well as “water-dependent” businesses, like marinas. Cities can choose their tsunami scenario — small, medium or large quake — and plan where they put their buildings accordingly. “You can’t put everything on the hills because that’s not realistic,” says Reed.

Proposed regulations could allow hotels and other businesses that benefit from beach access to stay, as long as they do their part, says Reed. Hotels could be required to provide guests with go-bags and tsunami maps (only a rare breed do so). Horning proposes a room tax of between $2 and $3 on seaside hoteliers to contribute to the $35 million needed for retrofitting bridges. Just a 2% tax, he says, could raise more than $1 million a year.

Until then, hotels and realtors who make their living from selling shorefront views have no reason to change. Corcoran harbors a special disdain for realtors who sell property in tsunami-inundation zones, and for the lobbyists who defend their practices in the state Legislature. If second-home buyers lose their property, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will just bail them out with taxpayer-subsidized flood insurance.

Still thinking about buying a second home on the beach? Corcoran has a better pitch for you in the foothills of the Coast Range. “You can still see the water, but you’re not dead.”

Through all the fear, Corcoran sees hope.

For one, he sees an “entrepreneurial wild west” of business opportunities. Contractors can make millions on seismic retrofits for “the OPB crowd.” Outdoor companies could sell prepackaged go-bags. Tourists might even come just to ogle at the Hatfield Center’s engineering marvel.

“There are worse things in the world than to have your waterfront etch-a-sketch shaken every 200 years,” Corcoran says. His point is not to take disaster lightly but to realize it is a solvable problem. It takes a modicum of effort to save thousands of lives. In less time than you might think, a resilient population can settle into a new normal.

A business community that embraces tsunami preparedness, instead of shrinking from the responsibility, will develop myriad strategies to survive and recover. When the wave hits Seaside, guests will grab their go-bags from their rooms. They’ll follow directions from hotel staff across retrofitted bridges to safety. Others might simply walk upstairs, if the hotel owner turned the building into a vertical evacuation structure. Elementary school students will just stay put.

Directed by a knowledgeable cashier, a customer will stand high and dry in the evacuation assembly area atop Sunset Hills, holding a half-eaten Mega Tsunami Pastrami.

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