The Curry Health Network (CHN) district board plans to forge ahead and build its new hospital on the site of its existing facility despite dire new warnings about earthquakes and tsunamis, their likelihood and predicted severity.
“We have a deadline; we have a building here that’s worn,” said district CEO Andrew Bair. “The fire marshal has said, ‘We’ve turned a blind eye to it long enough. Fix it or you can’t provide care there.’ That’s really the driving factor.”
CHN board member John Spicer said he summoned the state geologist and the Department of Geological and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) to ask where the hospital should be sited on the property when the experts divulged the results of new studies released last fall. (See related story, page 3A.)
New technology has enabled state geologists to finesse geography, geology, oceanography and seismology data and mesh it with that learned from Japan’s 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami to more accurately determine how bad “The Big One” here will really be.
“In 1995, we were working with maps from the ’60s, with 40-foot contour lines,” said Ian Madin, chief scientist with DOGAMI. “There was a lot of estimation. This was my best guess in 1995 of what a magnitude 9.0 would do to the Oregon Coast.
“But that was horrible modeling, using ancient technology,” he added.
“We had a very poor understanding of the whole process. Now we have a wealth of information we didn’t have in 1995. We understand velocity (of waves), wave elevation, earthquake history, oceanic topography.”
Geologists using such technology as LIDAR — ground-penetrating radar — to generate detailed maps have learned that Curry County is right on top of the juncture of the subduction zone of the Cascadia Fault.
The fault is a 600-mile-long crack offshore that is being created by the oceanic plate going under the continental plate, folding it as it progresses at a rate of about 1.5 inches a year. The fault “rips” and produces a 9.0 magnitude temblor, on average, every 530 years, and hasn’t done so since 1780.
Curry County, however, experiences a lesser quake along the fault every 214 years — making a “Big One” that much more overdue.
When it can no longer take the strain, scientists predict, the fault will release an earthquake of 8.1 to 9.1 in magnitude and create a tsunami with waves that could reach up to 110 feet in height — as archeological records show it did at the mouth of the Rogue River in the 1700s.
The new report categorizes earthquakes like T-shirt sizes, from small to XXL — and even “small” ones are on the magnitude of 8.7. Medium temblors are categorized as 8.9, large are 9.0 and XL and XXL are 9.1 or higher. The difference between a quake of 8.3 and an XL earth movement, Madin said, is an order of 20 times.
Large events could create waves of 65 to 100 feet in height. Even a smaller quake could generate waves that would put the hospital site under 4 to 6 feet of water.
There are four scenarios that could take place when the Cascadia ruptures, Madin said, ranging from a “full rip” from the Olympic Peninsula to Mendocino in California to partial breaks in the fault. All, however, include Curry County.
“It’s important to note, Curry County gets them all,” he said. “The longer the rip, the stronger the earthquake, and if you’re right on top of it, you get the whole thing.”
Additionally, soil samples taken at the site in the past month indicate the ground on which the hospital is situated is unstable — to a depth of 60 feet.
It is possible to survive these kind of earthquakes, Madin said. That was proven in Japan, where decades of education and training, the creation of paths — even sidewalks painted with footsteps — to lead people out of the tsunami inundation zone, resulted in a death toll that could easily have been much higher.
Taking the advice of generations before them, the residents of Fukushima built critical services out of the area affected last by a Cascadia earthquake in 1780.
“They restored electrical service within eight to 10 days; it was 95 percent up in areas not in the tsunami zone,” Madin said. “But in the earthquake zone … Yet it shows it is possible to come through these things and get back to business.”
Curry Health Network CEO Andrew Bair was warned that the hospital was in a tsunami inundation zone when he took the job last year.
But the lines that delineate that zone have recently been reevaluated, State Geologist George Priest told commissioners, and what they indicate alarms him.
The lines he drew in 1995 were conservative, Madin said, and the ones using today’s data show a “smaller” quake of 8.1 would create a tsunami that could put the hospital in about 3 to 6 feet of water. A “medium,” or 9.1 quake — the figure most often bandied about as likely — would put the hospital under about 50 feet of water.
“You will be absolutely slammed by an 8.1 (magnitude),” Madin said. “Your location (along the fault) makes you susceptible to damage regardless of the size.”
Additionally, southern Oregon is more prone to landslides than anywhere else in the state, although the new information shows that Gold Beach’s geology would fare much better than originally thought. Madin said 5 to 10 percent of the land there is in landslide-prone areas, compared to 70 percent in Brookings.
Resiliency is key, Madin said. Based on emerging data, the state allocated $30 million in the last biennium to use to replace or reinforce critical infrastructure, including highways, bridges, hospitals, emergency operating centers and fire and police stations.
All that money went to northern counties — and with the new application period just beginning, Itzen plans to take a plea to the governor to have the next round of funding dedicated completely to Curry County.
Another element he hopes to change in the law that allocates the funds is to allow not just replacement and reinforcement of such infrastructure, but to allow critical facilities to be relocated to safer areas — an aspect not addressed in the allocation of those funds.
That could prove to be instrumental for Curry General Hospital, as part of the $10 million general obligation bond voters approved in November to replace the hospital stipulates it will be build on the site of the existing facility. That stipulation was put in place to soothe the fears of those in the district that the hospital would not be moved out of Gold Beach.
County Commissioner David Brock Smith told the hospital board Wednesday that it would be irresponsible to build in the area — particularly with the new data in hand.
“Curry County is a political subdivision of the state,” he said. “We are in charge of emergencies in all of Curry County. We want to help in any way we can. But you can’t put your head in the sand that we’re more prone to earthquakes and tsunamis than any other place in the state.”
Don Kendall, emergency manager for the county, understands both sides of the issue.
“Sometimes you have to do things,” he said. “You sit, study, stare; finally you say, ‘We’ve looked at everything, and this is what we have left.’ I get that.”
To build … or wait
Hospital management and its board, which met Wednesday to discuss the issue, seemed to lean toward proceeding with construction as planned.
“The state knows what’s up,” Spicer said. “To not communicate with them or pretend we don’t want to know what the risks are, is not responsible. We need to make an informed decision.”
Because of the new data presented last week, unanswered questions the hospital board faces include:
•Are there other sites in or near town on which the hospital could be moved?
•Does the board risk losing potential funding to build when granting organizations learn it plans to build in a dangerous area?
•The state fire marshal has given hospital officials until 2016 to come into compliance with numerous code violations, rebuild the facility or lose it altogether: Does the board forego construction for now to further analyze the data — and risk losing the hospital? Or does it forge ahead immediately, as DOGAMI has no regulatory authority over the board, and get the new facility built before 2016?
•Is the risk of a tsunami that would destroy the hospital worth the loss of the hospital in 2016?
The new data, Spicer pointed out “doubles the potential of an earthquake hitting us” from Port Orford south. “We’re building a new hospital, so we need to know what the problems are.”
The question has arisen, too, asking if the hospital can’t be built somewhere else in or near Gold Beach.
“The hills are not stable,” Bair said. “Take it over the hill and you have issues with the mountains. There’s access issues elsewhere. And it’s what we told the public when with did the GO bond. Our ability to tax the district is tied to building on this site. We had people who were afraid we were going to take it to a different community, so we are tied to this site.”
The board will ultimately decide what to do.
“Some people think it’s disastrous; some think it makes no difference whatsoever,” Bair said. “I don’t know. We have to wait and see. I can’t do anything other than take the optimistic point of view that we’re going to build it and build it here. That’s our plan until someone says we can’t do that.”
Don Kendall, emergency manager for the county, said he is 100 percent in favor of a centrally located hospital. But as “the person they pay to worry,” he thinks it could be prudent to take the time to evaluate the data — and possibly the location in or near town.
“There are a lot of ideas out there,” he said. “And even if we go through every jot and diddle, we may still have to build it there. No matter what, it should be built to be safe and sustainable. Think of all the hazards we could have in this county. There’s only one total devastation hazard.”
Jay Wilson, who sits on the Oregon Seismic Safety Commission Advisory Committee, understands the plight of decision-makers, but is concerned about resilience, which the state defines as the ability to rebound after a catastrophe.
“I’d like the entire coastline to be configured in such a way it has a lot less risk,” he said. “When you have the opportunity to build a brand-new hospital — the most high-stakes facility — you want to build it to withstand the earthquake, to be able to be open and running after the earthquake.”
“I’m willing to take a lot of risk,” said citizen Brian Grummond. “The risk is considerable, but if we listen to them, we’ll be worse off. Let’s cut them off at the pass and tell them we have listened to them and find the risk acceptable. I don’t see this information changing the outcome.”
Spicer disagreed, however, citing the additional funding needed to complement the $10 million bond.
“We’ve got problems that go beyond that,” he said. “We have 60 feet of bad soil and no idea what a geology report will do to (funding options). I’m afraid (other agencies will) go to the feds and screw with our funding if we don’t talk with them. We have to talk with them.”
DOGAMI officials told county commissioners last week the state agency has no weight in any decision the hospital board makes.
“In 1995, this kind of building would be prohibitive,” Madin said. “But there’s nothing in the building code that would stop you.”
Grummond said he feels the risk of a tsunami is less important than losing the hospital altogether.
“We can take our chances and have the tsunami come kill us all at once,” he said. “Or they (the fire marshal) can take the hospital away and kill us slowly. Our town will die.”