OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

West Coast tsunami warnings shouldn’t lull Oregonians to sleep

03/11/2011

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The massive earthquake that rocked Japan Thursday and generated a tsunami that inundated coastal cities at that island nation triggered alerts around the world. The Oregon coast was no exception.

Some Oregon coastal residents received reverse-911 calls. Others were alerted by police officers with bullhorns. Many watched events unfold on television. For the most part, says one expert, things went smoothly. But when a major subduction zone earthquake hits the Pacific Northwest, he added, we won’t have the luxury of many hours of warning.

“All that you have to do is look at the footage from Japan and realize that is exactly what could happen here,” said Patrick Corcoran, an Oregon State University education and outreach specialist who has been working with coastal communities for several years on earthquake and tsunami preparation.

“We may have 15 to 30 minutes between the time an earthquake hits and a tsunami arrives, so Oregonians shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security,” Corcoran pointed out. “What happened in Japan, in Chile, in Banda Aceh – it will happen here. And it will be our turn to be in the bad place.”

Corcoran works in Seaside on the northern Oregon coast where he said people were both “compliant and a bit confused” about the tsunami warnings. A few people went to emergency shelters, he said, and some 40 cars were parked at one evacuation site.

He said everyone living on the West Coast needs to expect the possibility of this type of event happening in our lifetime – and to think specifically about what to do when an earthquake hits. The warning, he said, will be the earthquake itself.

“You need to drop and cover during the quake itself, and then immediately head to higher ground,” Corcoran said. “Everyone needs to know specifically where to go – whether you are at home, at work, out shopping or at your favorite bar. The general rule is to get to at least 50 feet elevation – and 100 feet if you can.

“Families need to have plans – for the parents and the kids – and have those conversations today,” he emphasized. “If the kids are at school and the parents are miles away, you have to trust that they will know what to do, or be told by their teachers to do the right thing, because you don’t want parents crossing the inundation zone trying to reach their children. You have to have the discipline to stay put if you are safe – and that discipline begins with being confident that all your family members know what to do in an emergency.”

Scientists say there is more than a one-in-three chance that a major subduction zone earthquake will hit the Pacific Northwest in the next 50 years.

New analyses by OSU marine geologist Chris Goldfinger and his colleagues have provided fresh insights into the Northwest’s turbulent seismic history – where magnitude 8.2 (or higher) earthquakes have occurred 41 times during the past 10,000 years.

The damage from such a quake could be catastrophic. Corcoran said Northwest residents need to understand that massive, widespread damage will make personal attention by emergency managers unlikely.

“People need to take personal responsibility for preparing themselves and their families for this inevitable event,” Corcoran said. “Prepared people not only help themselves, they can help their neighbors, too.”

Robert Yeats, a professor emeritus of geology at OSU, agrees that Oregon is in better shape now than in 2005, when one of the last major tsunami warnings took place.

“Then you had a bunch of people running down to the beach to take pictures, acting like idiots,” Yeats said. “It was sort of a fiasco. Oregon coastal communities seem to be better prepared now, even though there’s still work to do. Our building codes for new structures are much better than they used to be.

“Right now, Oregon is probably a leader in tsunami preparedness on the West Coast – although that still doesn’t compare to the level of work they’ve done in Japan,” Yeats added.

More information on tsunami preparedness is available through Oregon Sea Grant – a marine education and outreach program based at OSU. (http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/breakingwaves/)

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan affected Oregon State University in several ways, OSU officials said.

•    OSU closed its Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport until 10 a.m. this morning, according to director George Boehlert. About 50-60 overnight visitors were evacuated at 6:30 a.m. today. The center was closed again early Friday afternoon as a precaution.
•    OSU has three students in Japan studying under an exchange program – all in inland areas.
•    The university is reaching out to students on campus from Japan and Pacific island nations who are concerned about family members there. Approximately 70 students from Japan are studying at OSU.