Finding Higher Ground, and Saving Live, if a Tsunami Hits: Editorial

By:  The Oregonian - The Oregonian Editorial Board
Source: The Oregonian

Planning for disaster - a theoretical, expensive undertaking - is no fun. That's why it's commendable the U.S. Senate follows Oregon Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, who last month won bipartisan support in the House of Representatives for reauthorizing and strengthening the Tsunami Warning, Education and Research Act. This week, Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell was joined by senators Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Brian Schatz of Hawaii in winning committee support for such legislation - underscoring that the human stakes are too high to carry on in denial that coastal devastation is a real, arguably imminent, threat. Think: Japan.

Tsunami prediction is tricky. It depends on where the undersea earthquake that launches the tsunami originates - the farther away from Oregon, the longer coastal communities in the so-called inundation zone would have to evacuate. But slippage in the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a high-energy fault off Oregon's coast and running 620 miles from northern California to Vancouver Island, places Oregon and Washington at grave risk - with a resultant tsunami only minutes away. The numbers menace: Seismologists say historical evidence shows Cascadia is "due" to erupt every 300 to 600 years, and the last known event of cataclysmic scale along the fault occurred in 1700, when Oregon's shoreline in places sank several feet.

Worldwide, tsunami awareness has grown, notably from the televised spectacle in 2004 of a death wave in the Indian Ocean that traveled hundreds of miles at high speeds, ravaging the shores of 14 countries and killing more than 230,000 people before dissipating. It was loosed by an undersea quake off the coast of Sumatra estimated by scientists to be a magnitude 9.0 event, or at roughly the scale of rupture considered possible within the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Though many folks were lost during frantic evacuation attempts, more yet were in places completely unprepared and, even, unaware a wall of water from a faraway place could engulf them.

Japan was hit hard in recent years by its own close-in quake-tsunami event and advances coastal preparedness nationally. Yet it and others internationally still would profit from America's legislation by having highly accurate assessments of wave arrival time - and the same forecasting would make possible keener and quicker warnings here, in the Northwest, where "20 minutes is not enough," Cantwell told colleagues in a hearing on Thursday, "and cargo containers could be floating in downtown Seattle."

A gain in seconds or minutes of warning time against a tsunami's arrival can exponentially affect the mortality and public expense of an event.

A gain in seconds or minutes of warning time against a tsunami's arrival can exponentially affect the mortality and public expense of an event. In Oregon, areas along the coast that would be slammed by a tsunami - towns and settlements in the so-called inundation zone - are inhabited by more than 22,000 people, with that number multiplying in the beachgoing months of summer. Add to that 1,900 businesses employing about 15,000 people.

While detection and notification of tsunamis would improve under the new legislation, also required would be the availability of supercomputing resources for forecasting models and readiness assessments by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for areas especially vulnerable to near-shore tsunamis - like the Cascadia-proximate Oregon and Washington. Measures required by the legislation are a smart, thrifty investment considering the life and billions of dollars of property at stake.

Few people in Oregon understand the perverse psychology of tsunami preparedness better than Patrick Corcoran, a coastal natural hazards specialist working for Oregon State University's Sea Grant program. Corcoran helps coastal communities accept the probability of an event and prepare. He is blunt, if wry, in discussing disaster denial: "Our neurology evolved so that we'd be afraid of lions and tigers and bears jumping out on the path in front of us. Climate change-related events are not a direct passion to us, nor are 300-year-recurrance-interval events. What's gotten my ... passion is our vulnerability to a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and resultant tsunami. We get what Japan got."

Bonamici and Cantwell get it, too, and that's a good thing.