On the day of the Great Shake-Out earlier this month, the children at the Makah tribal school joined students, city workers and business people across the country in a simulated earthquake.
They ducked under desks and held tight. Then they lined up in rows outside and hiked up the street to a designated assembly area.
It’s a routine drill. But add the potential reality of felled power lines, blocked roads — and a 30-foot monster wave barreling toward a shoreline that’s just over 500 yards from the school’s front door — and you start to wonder if those little legs can make it to higher ground in time.
New research by Portland geologist Curt D. Peterson reveals just how devastating historic megathrust earthquakes and ensuing tsunamis likely were in the Neah Bay region. Unlike the 2001 Nisqually "deep" earthquake, megathrust earthquakes — birthed off the coast of Washington when the Juan de Fuca plate pushes beneath the continental North American plate — last longer and produce significant aftershocks as well as tsunamis, resulting in far greater damage and loss of life.
According to Peterson's research, there have been at least three of these megathrust quakes in the last 1,300 years. Many know about the most recent, dated to 1700 A.D. and described as being similar to Japan’s event in March 2011. But there were also bigger earthquakes. On the outer coast, where the northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula faces the vast Pacific Ocean, Peterson calculates that a megathrust quake about 1,300 years ago likely produced a wave at least 37 feet high that reached more than 2.5 miles inland.
And that’s a conservative estimate.
“It would have been terrifying,” Peterson said.
In the wake of the earthquake in Japan's Tohoku region, with its wall-to-wall CNN coverage, there’s been renewed attention to the history of similar events along the Washington state coastline. Tourist destinations like the Hi-Tide Ocean Beach Resort in Moclips have refined their evacuation plans. Procedures are posted in each of the resort’s 33 rooms, but employee Sharon Harper’s version of the plan is more to the point: “Run like hell.”
And with the last such event just over 300 years distant, it’s not a question of “if” but “when” the next major event will occur.
Still, are our coastal communities prepared? Or do places like Ocean Shores, a tourist destination of about 5,500 permanent residents that incorporated a mere 42 years ago, lack a fundamental survival gene that can only be built up over centuries of cultural tradition?
By all accounts, the Makah tribe at least is well-primed for disaster.
On paper, the tribe’s plans are like any other emergency management department — mapping out escape routes, designating incident command posts and stockpiling supplies for the days they would expect to be without help.
Tucked into the farthest reaches of Washington state's northwestern-most tip, where there was no state highway access until the 1950s, Neah Bay is isolated. A two-lane, winding road prone to mudslides has cut off access in the past.
“At least initially, we can’t rely on the feds or the state to take care of us,” said Andrew Winck, the tribe’s emergency management coordinator. But no one seems to worry about that.
“The Makah people have been here for thousands of years because they were able to take care of themselves,” Winck said. “We work to be self-reliant.”
Tribal members also didn’t need to see the stirring video of black water inundating Japanese towns to know that they face the same dangers. Stories passed down through generations tell of likely past events — shaded by time, but no less dramatic — that lend a special emotional oomph to the need for preparedness.
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