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Will Northwest miss a teachable moment on tsunamis, quakes?

The famous Japanese artist Hokusai made this wave print in the 19th century. Japanese records helped date a 1700 tsunami that struck the Pacific Northwest. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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.

Scientists associated with Project Safe Haven, a consortium of Washington agencies funded with federal dollars, are talking about vertical structures on the Washington coast in a series of meetings in a four-county area. The ideas include a reinforced tower that could also be used as a school or public building, berms, and walls, in addition to well-marked and accessible escape routes to higher ground.

As a result of several community meetings, the Project Safe Haven team has published a draft of how vertical structures might work in Pacific County. The plan calls for 13 berms, five towers, and two parking garages in addition to existing natural areas. Costs range from $300,000 to $900,000 for a berm; $110,000 to $170,000 for a tower; and $828,000 for a garage. Project Safe Haven is beginning design work with community participation. No funding source has been identified.

Some 40,000 people live on the most at-risk section of Washington’s coast south of the Straight of Juan de Fuca. Ocean Shores near Aberdeen is considered the most vulnerable spot, and community discussions have focused on berms and towers allowing refuge for the 5,500 residents plus summertime visitors.

On the Oregon Coast, the city of Cannon Beach hopes to lead the way with a new city hall built to provide refuge from a tsunami as well as preserve vital public services. Cannon Beach, a popular resort town on the northern coast, is only one of several Oregon coastal communities vulnerable to a tsunami.

In Oregon, the larger challenge is finding a way to take advantage of the earthquake-safety bonds authorized by the state’s voters in 2002 and used for the first time in 2009. The general-obligation bonds (backed by general state taxes) financed $22.5 million in 2009-2011 for schools and public-safety reconstruction, but no bonds were recommended for the 2011-2013 budget cycle.

The State Treasurer’s Office says Oregon is maxed out on general obligation bonds, which typically pay for college buildings, veterans’ home loans, facilities for the disabled, and state office buildings. “Oregon policymakers should be judicious and strategic about the use of scarce state debt capacity in the upcoming budget cycle,” the State Debt Policy Advisory Commission recommended on Feb 18. “Because of sharp declines in projected general fund revenue, the state is likely to temporarily exceed the historical target for general fund-backed debt,” a maximum of 5 percent of general fund revenue devoted to annual debt service. Legislators are reluctant to go against the advisory committee, fearing a bad effect on the state’s credit rating.

Scientists and school-safety advocates are looking at ways to begin projects while the state bonding program waits for economic recovery. One aggressive proposal is to retrofit 1,000 schools at risk, plus key bridges and several coastal communities in need of vertical evacuation structures. The authors of the plan are Yumei Wang, a state earthquake-risk engineer and author of major studies on Oregon earthquake danger; Jay Raskin, the former mayor of Cannon Beach and an architect who went through the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco; and Edward Wolf, a Portland environmental writer (disclosure: Wolf is my son-in-law). Their proposal envisions both public and private investment of up to $1.5 billion over ten years.

The agenda for earthquake safety in Oregon’s current legislative session is limited because of the bonding-capacity problem, but advocates support a resolution by Rep. Deborah Boone of Cannon Beach, directing the state’s Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission (OSSPAC) to initiate planning to protect lives and keep commerce flowing during and after a Cascadia earthquake and tsunami, hoping the measure will put safety bonds on the agenda for the 2013 budget cycle.

Lacking state or federal funding, many Oregon school districts have been upgrading seismic standards a building at a time, usually with local bonds. Portland, the state’s largest district, upgraded 53 of its 95 schools for seismic safety, a $47 million project in 1995. A bond measure on Portland’s May ballot would upgrade eight additional schools. Other Oregon districts are upgrading seismic standards as they rebuild or build new schools, but 80 percent of Oregon’s schools predate uniform building codes and 94 percent were built before seismic codes were added.

Oregon had been several steps ahead of California and Washington in preparation for an earthquake and tsunami, thanks to studies that began with 2001 legislation authored by Senate President Peter Courtney and OSSPAC. Early legislation required identification of seismic risks in schools and public safety buildings and in 2002 Oregon voters allowed the state to issue up to $1 billion in general obligation bonds for earthquake safety. But only the $22.5 million in 2009-2011 has actually been used or will be later this year. Schools will get $10 million to upgrade 15 schools housing 6,000 children.

With assistance from FEMA funds, highest-risk schools and public-safety buildings were identified; a 2007 study found over 1,000 schools at risk of collapse, nearly 650 of them at high risk. About 300,000 students attend the schools at risk, including thousands within reach of a tsunami.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has launched a campaign to upgrade schools’ energy efficiency, tapping $38 million in federal conservation bonds, and has indicated that some seismic work might accompany the energy retrofits, but his legislation has yet to be approved.

Senate President Courtney told Oregon Public Broadcasting in March that he would continue his battle for funds, but noted: “I’ve never understood this issue in terms of decision makers. There’s always something more important to them. . . All the evidence by all the scientists worldwide who’ve studied this thing for Oregon say, ‘You’re going to get hit. It could be as bad as 9.3. You’re going to get clobbered.’ ”

Washington, equally at risk of a Cascadia earthquake and tsunami, is in much the same position; no specific seismic-update funding apparatus for schools is before the current legislative session. Washington uses trust land revenue for state school construction grants matched to local school district bond issues. This system has generated $19 billion in school construction funds since 1993. New school construction and major building upgrades were built to the seismic safety standards in effect at the time of construction, according to state emergency management officials. Seattle Public Schools web site has a 2009 seismic report on conditions at individual schools throughout the district.

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