It has been a horrible teachable moment, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, a wakeup call all along the Pacific Coast of this country. In vulnerable communities, the sought-after speakers are geologists and seismic experts whose warnings have been ignored for decades but are now very much in style.
Their lessons are quite simple: there will be another Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake less than 100 miles off our coast, and it will trigger a tsunami. Thousands of people could die as a result. The earthquake will demolish buildings and kill people far inland as well as along the coast.
The question is not whether it will happen — as it did 311 years ago, before white settlement of the region — but when it will happen. It's overdue, scientists say, and the region is woefully unprepared.
Robert Yeats, a retired Oregon State University geologist and one of the world's major experts on seismic activity, warned in a 2004 book, "There is a scientific consensus on the risk we face from a subduction zone earthquake and there is now no serious doubt that we are vulnerable. Right now, the debate is primarily whether a long section of the subduction zone fault will release all at once, generating about a magnitude 9 earthquake, or in separate segments that would yield magnitude 8 earthquakes." Yeats is inclined to expect a magnitude 9 quake.
The big Japanese earthquake and tsunami killed thousands despite the world's best defenses, far better than any state on our coast. We have studies and monitoring and early warning systems, but virtually nothing to deal with evacuation and safety of structures. Structures are vital — in Japan, residents who took shelter in reinforced structures outside the tsunami zone survived the earthquake; many took refuge in schools.
In the Pacific Northwest, emphasis is being put on coastal communities where long stretches of flat beaches provide little refuge against a tsunami, which can strike with only minutes of warning. Some innovative ideas, involving a technique geologists call "vertical evacuation," are being introduced on the Washington Coast but none have been built.
The problem — no surprise here — is lack of public funding in the wake of the economic recession and resultant budget cuts by legislatures and local governments. The teachable moment is not accompanied by a fungible moment, and it appears the region will kick the can down the road in 2011, again hoping this will not be the year of the Big One.
The irony is particularly acute in Oregon, because the state has had over a decade of planning for seismic events, and voter-authorized public bonding that has barely been scratched. In many ways, it's planning is ahead of neighboring Washington. Now, when public attention is focused, the bonding can't be used, because the state's anemic revenues don't justify the issuance of new bonds. Oregon knows where its most vulnerable schools and public-safety structures are and how to fix them, but has no money for the jobs.
Washington has ramped up a tsunami campaign that is laying out plans to protect coastal communities, but the plans are not accompanied by funding. To bring vulnerable public buildings up to standard and construct vertical evacuation berms, towers, and walls could run into billions of dollars at a time when legislators can't agree on priorities for a few million.
Standards to protect against earthquakes have been in place for decades, and new buildings must meet them; but many schools predate those standards, particularly in older, inner-city neighborhoods. Tsunami protection, however, didn't figure into public discussion until recent years, and even the term is not familiar to many citizens.
An earthquake in the magnitude of 9.0 (the Japanese quake) would wreak havoc in Oregon, Washington, and California, and would likely also produce a tsunami that geologists predict could bring fatalities of the magnitude of the recent Japanese disaster. Even the best of warning systems — and Japan had the best — might not be enough to move large numbers of people to higher ground in case of a 9.0 earthquake producing a tsunami. Where high ground is nearby, people can evacuate on foot or by car; but in cases where no natural height is nearby, other methods must be found.
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