NYT article on PNW tsunami threat

Hi all,

Just wanted to share this article from yesterday’s New York Times re: the tsunami aspect of the seismic hazard in the PNW and how communities are trying to prepare: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/07/us/tsunami-northwest-evacuation-towers.html

The article actually does a good job of explaining why a tsunami triggered by a Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) earthquake would be so destructive, touching not only on the oft-mentioned aspects of the hazard (e.g., the height of the wave; the arrival time) but also the fact that 12-20 minutes of lead time for evacuation does not get you as far (literally) on buckled, undriveable roads, and the fact that the coasts of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington have a lot of huge bays fronted by multi-mile-long, extremely low-lying sand spits that have been heavily developed and will literally be overtopped by the wave. (The article has tons of maps that illustrate this effectively.)

We’ll have to wait and see what happens after the votes on the various evacuation-tower-financing bond measures are cast, but it seems like there are some real signs that people in the affected communities are taking the threat seriously. It’s one thing when geologists at DOGAMI and the major research universities in the region offer journalists quotes about the number of thousands of people who will die; it’s another thing when a school superintendent says, “The fact of the matter is that if a tsunami occurs tomorrow, we are going to lose all of our children.” At least we’re (maybe) past the point where nobody in these communities is willing to confront the reality that they will not be able to evacuate.

I also read (too many of) the comments. It was interesting to see what wasn’t getting across/what people were confused about. For example, a lot of folks seemed to have a “these towers will never work!” reaction, but the Japanese have been building them for a while and there are engineering design guidelines for this type of structure. I’d really prefer a managed retreat strategy for a place like Ocean Shores than a bunch of expensive, ugly evacuation towers (especially since sea level rise will come for that town even if the tsunami holds off for a couple more centuries), but the former is so legally fraught and so much more costly that I just don’t see Washington, let alone Oregon, getting to it in a timely fashion. I suspect they’re going to let California figure it out first (with respect to climate change, i.e., not tsunamis), since California has money. That’s moving really slowly, though, so I feel like Oregon and Washington should maybe just invest in some towers in the meantime, you know?

Also, a lot of people were getting in “people shouldn’t live there!” arguments, and many of the people on Team People Shouldn’t Live There seemed to have the impression “there” consists of super wealthy communities where people with options have chosen to live because they “want an ocean view.” But a lot of the PNW coast is pretty economically depressed, and it’s less that people have chosen to live there than that they’re from there and it would be super challenging for them to relocate. Also, scientists didn’t really understand that these tsunami-generating mega-quakes could happen here until the 1990s, so of course people settled and built in dangerous places— they didn’t know they were dangerous!

The other interesting thing in the comments is just seeing the range of reactions. Some people were like, “So much for visiting Oregon and Washington ever in my life!” While some PNW commenters’ reactions were more along the lines of, “I’m figuring I’ll probably just die when it hits and I’m okay with that.” Personally, I visit the coast all the time, but don’t like being out on those spits. My husband has wanted to explore a couple of them (at Tillamook Bay and the mouth of the Columbia) and I was totally jittery the whole time. I also haven’t spent a night in the tsunami inundation zone since 1996 and have no intention of ever doing so again. 

So, I’m curious: Any PNWers out there have thoughts on any of this? (Or people from BC or Japan?) For those who aren’t PNWers, do you think we’re nuts to live here? 😀


  • Comments (15)

    • 3

      Thank you for the summary and for your reflections. For about 35 years of my adult life, I lived in California earthquake country. When I retired, I left for a part of the country which doesn’t have earthquakes, though it has winter. I definitely feel more calm because I don’t have a constant alertness related to wondering, “If an earthquake happened right now, what would I do?” For those with the economic and social capital to leave earthquake zones, I’d say go for it.

      • 3

        Thanks for your response, Seasons4! I can definitely relate to walking around thinking, “If an earthquake happened right now, what would I do?” While situational awareness is a good prepper skill, it can feel burdensome under some circumstances and I also believe that it’s possible to take it to excess. I really noticed that when I moved to the Cascadia Subduction Zone from the San Andreas Fault Zone and just felt so much less confident that the buildings around me would remain standing during an earthquake. It sounds like you moved to California as an adult from a less seismically active place, so maybe your experience moving there was comparable to mine relocating from CA to the PNW. Having spent most of the first 35 years of my life in California, I was/am pretty comfortable with the risk level there and knew the higher-hazard areas/buildings/circumstances; here it just feels like a whole different ballgame. I always say that’s because the risk of actually dying in an earthquake here is higher— due to the bigger earthquakes + more infrastructure that pre-dates awareness of the hazard— but it might also be because it’s not a hazard to which I’m accustomed.

        With that disclaimer/description of my positionality, I am comfortable living in the Cascadia Subduction Zone and even moreso in the San Andreas Fault Zone; I wouldn’t encourage anyone to straight-up leave… though it would make housing more affordable for the rest of us… 😉

        I do think it’s necessary to be very careful about where you live, work, and go to school, and commute routes. Some of my rules are: Absolutely no living/working/sending kids to school or dogs to daycare/spending the night in the tsunami inundation zone; live in wood-framed or recent (i.e., in the PNW, last 20 years; in CA, a little older is okay) construction; avoid soft stories and unreinforced masonry when you are considering an apartment or a job offer; if you own your home, bolt it to the foundation or, at the very least, install an earthquake-activated gas shutoff valve; do not live or work on fill or other liquefaction-prone soil or landslide-prone areas; if you have a choice in bridges, use seismically hardened ones. 

        Downstream from that comes water storage, go bags, under the bed items, etc., but if the question is, “Should I live here or not?” I’d take a close look at where you can afford to reside and how much control you have over your work and school locations— the places where you spend most of your time. There’s nothing you can do about walking under the wrong building when the Big One hits and getting taken out by a gargoyle or a “DONUTS COFFEE 24 HOURS” light-up sign, and I wouldn’t give up the all the joys and rewards of the West Coast for that comparatively small risk (which is probably much lower than being hit by a car in any city or being in a wreck on the freeway anywhere in the US), but I also wouldn’t live in Ocean Shores, WA, if someone paid me to do so. Literally.

    • 4

      It was a New Yorker article years ago that touched off all the hysteria about the Cascadia Subduction Zone to begin with. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/20/the-really-big-one  That article would terrify anyone.  One of the pitfalls of being a prepper is that one is constantly thinking of disasters to prep against, and the Big One definitely looms large in my mind.  It can shrink your world – I know I worry about all the bridges and dams that will fail, most certainly when I’m 150 away from home.    We’re about 150 miles inland from the coast and I am not attracted to going there, partly because of the concern of being there at the wrong time.

      Something that doesn’t often come up in these CSZ earthquake articles, is the fact that during the spring break and summer, the Oregon coast is cram packed with visitors who clog the highway, but also haven’t a clue about how to respond to a tsunami alert.

      One thing that a non-northwesterner might not visualize is that the accessible PNW coast is slam up against a massive mountain range with few routes through them, making an inland escape difficult to impossible.

      Oregon’s coast is beautiful but is also well known for its dangers and has been forever.  Here’s the story of how the ocean claimed the town of Bayocean https://www.opb.org/news/article/oregon-bayocean-ghost-town-resort-tillamook-bay/  The possibility of an earthquake is just a more recent reveal.

      Oregon famously ignores most of itself besides the densely populated I-5 corridor, so I doubt any major infrastructure benefiting the coast will ever get off the drawing board.

      • 2

        The site of Bayocean was one of those places my husband wanted to explore, and I was like, “I am not comfortable being here. How soon can we leave?”

    • 5

      Our family lives in south Pierce Co, far from the coast, but very aware of the danger presented by all this. When we bought our rural property we specifically considered natural disasters: earthquakes, forest fires, flooding, even predominate winds directions in the event of a Mt. Rainier eruption. Of course you can’t mitigate and/or plan for everything but risk assessment can go a long way. 

      I can’t imagine living near the coast. It’s beautiful out there, but it just wouldn’t be worth the risk. But the big cities also will be decimated by a 9.0 earthquake, from south of Portland to North of Seattle could be a disaster especially all the bridges/overpasses along the I-5 corridor. 

      While we’re far enough away to have minimal direct impact — we’re also not naive and we don’t ignore the risks. We know there would be far reaching shortages, disruptions, displaced people, etc. This is why we prepare, these are the considerations we have, and this is how we form our plans.

      Are we nuts to live here? No. Not anymore than anywhere else. Name a place in the country that is safe from natural disasters — especially as we’re seeing climate change disrupt all the old models, patterns, and predictions (you can’t call it a 100 year flood if it’s happened 4 times in the last 10 years…)

      • 2

        The latest news article says that The Earthquake will unleash the biggest fuel spill in history…in Portland.

      • 4

        Yep. From the Jul ‘15 New Yorker article:

        “The shaking from the Cascadia quake will set off landslides throughout the region . . . It will also induce a process called liquefaction, whereby seemingly solid ground starts behaving like a liquid, to the detriment of anything on top of it. Fifteen per cent of Seattle is built on liquefiable land, . . . So is Oregon’s critical energy-infrastructure hub, a six-mile stretch of Portland through which flows ninety per cent of the state’s liquid fuel and which houses everything from electrical substations to natural-gas terminals.”

        (Emphasis added)

      • 3

        Oh yeah, the critical energy infrastructure hub thing is such a nightmare. I think about it whenever I drive through northwest PDX. I am mildly comforted by the fact that it is in the northern part of the city, and the Willamette flows north, so at least the fuel/fire will be transported away from the city by the river. I am less comforted by the proximity of the fuel tanks to Forest Park in far northwest Portland. If the earthquake happens in anything other than a drenching downpour or its immediate wake, that seems like a clear conduit for fire into the rest of the metro area. Also, the whole thing underscores what a huge environmental disaster this will be for the northwest. 🙁

    • 6

      “”So, I’m curious: Any PNWers out there have thoughts on any of this? (Or people from BC or Japan?) For those who aren’t PNWers, do you think we’re nuts to live here?””

      Thing is no matter where we live there is always some risk from natural disaster. EG the US  West Coast has the Cascadia subduction zone, Middle America has the New Madrid  Fault.  East coast has Hurricanes, Tornadoes and a risk of a Mega tsunami  coming from a volcanic fault in Gran Canaria. And with Climate Change nowhere in the US is safe from Droughts, Ice storms, Heat waves or Deluges.    I think its HOW you live in your chosen area that decides much, for example in a high risk tsunami area living at sea level near the beach is far riskier than living 5 miles inland on a hill top.

      • 3

        Well said.

    • 3

      A major CSZ event is the level of preparedness that I aspire to be ready for (as ready as one can be anyways) and it is my “preparing for the known risk will get you most of the way prepared for the unknown risks” measuring stick.I’ve been fascinated by it since the early 90’s when my geology teacher in high school told us about it. 

      I live in the Willamette Valley and it’s beautiful. I love to visit the coast, but am always aware of tsunami zones. We make day trips, but only stay at inland hotels if we stay overnight. We also always have our EDCs, BOBs, and car kit with us any time we’re more than 5 miles from home. The biggest issue away from home is the roads and bridges.

      However, I will say us Oregonians (outside of the metro areas) are a resilient lot. Just about every home is stick built and has supplies ranging from camping gear to RVs worth more than their houses. Lots of ATVs, 4×4’s, and boats too. (Seriously, even in my poorest days me and everyone I knew had a tent, sleeping bags, tarps, and a Coleman stove we could throw in our cars and head out camping whenever the mood hit.)

      Sadly, many of our coastal communities will be wiped out, but the cities and counties are doing what they can with the budgets they have to work with. Most of them are still reeling from the loss of timber dollars and their permanent populations are aging. Highway 101, the major coastal highway that stretches from California through Oregon to Washington is crumbling and is the only North/South route on the coast at least in Oregon. Most infrastructure money is spent keeping it patched up.

      For many reasons, I stay as far away from the Portland metro region as possible. I’m actually way more nervous when I have to go there than I am anywhere else in the state. 

    • 5

      Just observing here that the followup article in The New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/how-to-stay-safe-when-the-big-one-comes is the literal definition of everything The Prepared is about.

      • 2

        That is a good article and something that needs to be shared more.

      • 2

        I don’t think I’d seen the follow-up before! And I agree with Lara and Peter that it’s very good. She really lays out the gradient of risk that comes with living up here and how to manage it— i.e., there are some things one really should NOT do, but “live north of Cape Mendocino and west of I-5” isn’t on that list.

      • 2

        Thank you for posting! I’m a fan of the original article and never knew that she had published a follow up shortly after it.