CORVALLIS, Ore. – It is not a matter of if, but when.
Experts say a major earthquake, similar to the one that devastated Japan this year, will hit the Washington and Oregon coasts at some point.
That quake will then trigger a major tsunami wave, which will probably hit the coast 15 to 30 minutes after the earth stops shaking. Some experts say there is a one-in-seven chance a Japan-like tsunami will strike the United States in the next 50 years.
But what will that giant wave do to coastal communities like Long Beach, Westport and Ocean Shores? It’s hard to say. Tsunamis are a very difficult thing to study. For starters, they are so massive, it’s nearly impossible to duplicate a life-size tsunami wave.
Researchers at Oregon State University in Corvallis have found a way to study the potential impact of tsunamis by bringing the waves down to size. It’s called the Tsunami Wave Research Facility and is funded by the National Science Foundation.
The facility has a wave basin, which resembles a swimming pool. On one end of the basin, machines create a wave that’s sent to the other end of the pool, crashing into a small-scale coast. Researchers can put small-scale buildings – even entire communities – on that coast to gauge what the waves might do.
For example, researchers built physical and computer models off the coastal town Seaside, Oregon, and found that 1700 lives could be lost if people tried to escape the tsunami by only running inland.
“There’s some places along the coast where people do not have the time to get to high ground,” said OSU’s Scott Ashford.
Researchers found far fewer people would die if the town had strong, tsunami-proof buildings that allowed people to escape by going up – a concept known as vertical evacuation. But not a single structure like that has been built in the United States, said Patrick Corcoran, a coastal hazards specialist with OSU’s Extension office. For starters, the buildings are incredibly expensive.
“Right now, with everyone strapped for cash, we have to focus more on education,” said Pacific County, Washington Sheriff Scott Johnson.
The Long Beach peninsula, which dangles several miles into the Pacific Ocean, is especially vulnerable. Very little of the peninsula is considered high ground.
“Ideally we would have some place people could talk to, within eight minutes, from any home on the peninsula,” Johnson said. “We’re not there yet, but we’re working toward that goal.”
After an earthquake strikes, everyone on the coast needs to get to 50 to 100 feet in 15 to 50 minutes, Corcoran said. People should map out possible evacuation routes now, so it’s instinct when an earthquake hits.
Kathie Bankert moved to Long Beach from the East Coast last summer. When the Japan earthquake prompted a tsunami advisory along the Washington coast in March, she got a phone call from emergency management at 4:30 a.m. She got to high ground an hour later. She knows she’ll need to move much faster when the big wave hits.
“It’s terrifying when you realize you’re not ready for it,” Bankert said.
Corcoran calls Japan’s monstrous quake and tsunami were a wake-up call for the West Coast.
“This is as close to a wake-up call as we’re going to get without the real event,” Corcoran said.
In addition to mapping out possible evacuation routes, keeping in mind the earthquake could wipe out roads and create other obstacles, people should have survival kits that are ready to go at a moment’s notice,
“Our public education recommends that residents prepare to be on their own for three days,” said Denise Rowlett of Pacific County Emergency Management.
Residents can also register their cell phones to receive phone calls if a tsunami advisory is issued.
People should keep in mind that warning sirens are just meant for people who are outside. A few parts of Long Beach are out within earshot of a siren, but the county hopes to fix that with the installation of additional sirens in the next few months, Rowlett said.
It is also recommended that everyone keep a NOAA weather radio on hand to receive information about impending tsunamis.