Sooner or later, the Cascadia fault zone is going to unleash a monster earthquake and tsunami hitting the Pacific Northwest, including parts of Alaska. When that day comes, you hope that essential services are located high enough so that they don’t get washed away when you most need them.
Remember those videos of the massive tsunami hitting the northeast coast of Japan in 2011.
The waves of water overtopped sea walls, swallowed buildings and surged higher than anticipated. One thing those images prompted was a reexamination of the tsunami risk along our shores.
In Oregon and Washington, the state geology divisions released new tsunami evacuation maps beginning in 2013. The tsunami inundation map updates are still rolling out segment by segment in Washington State. More people and property are in harm’s way under the new maps… about 30 percent more along the Oregon Coast. And at a series of meetings in Salem that has proven to be a sticky problem.
“Any hazard mapping, as I can attest to from having worked at FEMA, and at the state and at the local level, it’s always heartburn,” said Jay Wilson, venting at a meeting of Oregon earthquake safety advisors.
Structural engineer Jeff Soulages joined Wilson. They’re upset at the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries for delaying the adoption into statute of the new, higher tsunami flood line to regulate vulnerable new construction.
“I cannot understand for the life of me why you would wait when you already you have these maps,” Soulages said. “They’ve been in your hands for four years.”
One way Oregon differs from neighboring Washington and California is that the Oregon Legislature long ago (in the mid-1990s) made it a rule that certain “essential facilities” cannot be built inside the tsunami zone, namely new hospitals, fire and police stations, schools, colleges and jails.
Existing critical facilities are grandfathered in place and there are exceptions when, say a new fire station, for strategic reasons needs to be close to a highway or population center. None of this applies to construction of private businesses and homes.
There’s a reason the old tsunami line is still in place when it comes to new construction: strong pushback from coastal legislators.
“On the South Coast, if you’re going to move things, where are you going to move them to? There’s no place to go. Here’s the ocean and there’s the mountains. There’s not a whole lot of space,” said Republican State Senator Jeff Kruse. “You get up to Cannon Beach or Seaside, it’s a different environment. Still like in Seaside, if you’re going to move the inundation zone line, you’ve got to go miles to get back above it again.”
The pushback is bipartisan. Democratic state Senator Betsy Johnson said people living along the coast have regulatory fatigue and don’t need what she called “holier than thou” lectures.
“I don’t think they need a board in Portland to tell them how to think thoughtfully about tsunamis,” she said. “The other thing that I am very worried about is if we allow this culture of casualty to infest our thinking, we drive people away from the coast that the coast needs.”
Johnson worries an expanded tsunami zone will upend long-term planning for a new hospital in Astoria. It complicates where to build a new fire station in Gearhart.
A new marine studies building at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport gets a pass because it has a planned capacity under 500 people.
Documents obtained by public radio show the Coastal Caucus, comprising the eight legislators from districts along the Oregon coast, took the position that siting decisions should rest at the local level with the state limiting itself to a consultative role. In contrast, some Willamette Valley legislators and disaster resilience experts have periodically proposed to give the state geologist’s staff stronger authority to regulate development in the tsunami hazard zone.
Coastal legislators have let the Oregon Department of Geology know in no uncertain terms that they would try to strip the agency of authority if it broadens the tsunami regulatory zone.
Communications Director Ali Ryan Hansen says the agency’s board decided it made sense to pause and consult more with affected communities.
“The scientific information about where a tsunami is expected to reach is widely available, but it has it not been used to update this regulatory piece. Our board wants to be responsive,” Hansen said.
Hansen says the department in its history has never been asked for an exception or denied a development application for being inside the tsunami zone. The agency’s board tentatively plans to revisit the tsunami line question this December.
In some ways, Oregon’s conundrum is just a preview of what Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska and Hawaii will all get to wrestle with beginning next year. In 2018, the national building code council distributes an updated model building code which for the first time incorporates tsunami design criteria. States can choose to adopt or ignore the new model code.
The proposed new tsunami provisions cover siting, design and structural resistance to collapse, battering and scouring. The new chapter also gives guidance on how to build taller and stronger to provide an elevated safe haven if a building must be located in the tsunami inundation zone.
Tom Banse/Northwest News Network can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org