Off the Beat: Imagining Brookings’ earthquake scenario
February 02, 2011 04:00 am

I grew up in Santa Rosa, Calif., listening to my great-grandmother’s stories about surviving the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

Earthquakes are part of my heritage. Before I was six months old, I’d lived through a pair of them, of magnitudes 5.6 and 5.7. When I was 10, I found myself sheltering in a doorway watching my mother and grandmother take shelter under a table, as yet another quake hit my hometown. 

Ten years later, in 1989, after the 6.9 Loma Prieta Earthquake, I raced outside to find out if my husband, Mike, who was working under a car on jacks, was still alive. (He was.) As a young mother in 1998, I snatched my children away from a plate glass window as a smaller temblor hit.

I can easily imagine what an earthquake and tsunami  in Brookings might look like, and to help the Pilot’s readers visualize “The Big One” that scientists say could hit here at any time, I’ve included some of my imaginings in this column.


It’s an unremarkable gray day in Brookings. Residents and visitors are going about their business, children sit at their desks in school, parents play with their toddlers in the parks, and people stroll along the beaches.

Suddenly, a hard, violent jolt throws everyone to the ground. Drivers lose control of their cars as the road begins jumping under them. Then the earth begins rolling under their feet, like a storm-tossed ocean. Shoppers in  stores grab for pillars or anything solid. School children, teachers and office workers dive under their desks.


Earthquakes are, to me, and to many other Californians, part of life. My high school science classes stressed geology, and I learned enough to be curious, so I signed up for more in-depth geology classes in college.

However, my entire focus was on California slip-strike  quakes, the kind I was most likely to experience. The Cascadia Subduction Zone was “that strange place up north” that had little relation to our problems.

So, when the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) held a public information meeting in January, I was there with ears wide open, ready to learn about what horrors the northern quakes might hold.

And I was horrified. When Californians talk about the “Big One” that’s coming, probably sooner than later, they speak of an 8.0 or 8.2 as the worst case scenario.

But the best-case scenario, the smallest quake Brookings and other Oregon coast residents can expect, is an 8.2, according to Oregon Earth Sciences Information Officer James Roddey. The worst case? 9.2.


Books tumble off shelves, knick-knacks smash to the floor. Computers and lamps bounce off tables and shatter. Canned goods fly from grocery shelves as the shelves topple over. The power goes out. People try to run outside, but it’s difficult to maneuver over unstable ground, and when they see the collapsing chimneys and wobbling buildings, they don’t want to go any farther.

Minutes later, Brookings is still shaking. It’s possible to walk now, but it’s like trying to move on a ship in high seas. Those caugt at the port when the quake hit  begin scrambling for high ground as the water rushes out of the harbor and the boats in their slips settle into the suddenly exposed mud.

Running uphill, they see the Chetco River Bridge, rippling as if made of jello. Cars on the bridge are tossed like popcorn in a hot pan, then the bridge collapses.


I admit it. I like earthquakes. I like quakes the way some people like going out in boats when the seas are rough, or enjoy kayaking Class IV rapids, or free-skiing off cliffs.

And like the adrenaline junkies engaged in those activities, I know people frequently get hurt, even killed by object of my fascination. I hate that part. Yet, it doesn’t stop that primal yearning inside me that exults at a quake’s first jolt. But thankfully, I (unlike people who are obsessed with fire) can’t be blamed for starting a quake.


When the shaking stops, many people jump into their cars, only to discover that everyone else has, too. No one can move in the gridlock, so drivers and passengers take to their feet, leaving their cars blocking the roads.

The Chetco River bridge is gone, as are the Thomas Creek Bridge, the Winchuck Bridge, the Don Cameron bridge over the Upper Chetco River,  and Second Bridge.

Landslides along the cliffs have dropped Highways 101 and 199 into the water below, in at least a dozen places. Electrical transmission towers lean crazily or lay on the ground.

Nearly two minutes later, the 8.8 quake – far stronger than the one that leveled San Francisco in 1906 – is over.

But the worst is yet to come.


I may love earthquakes, but am terrified of tsunamis. While most people will probably survive Oregon’s monster quake, the tsunami that follows is expected to kill on a large scale. And though just thinking about that is scary, to me, there’s something awe-inspiring as well as gut-wrenching about a 30- to 40-foot wall of water marching across the waterfront.

I have another admission. I was one of those people who went down to the beach when a (very) small tsunami arrived in September, 2009, a result of a quake in Samoa.

Brookings Fire Chief Bill Sharp once told me there’s a special name for people who do something like that, though it can’t be printed in a family newspaper. In my own defense, I did enough research before making that decision to know that particular tsunami would not even lap at the boulders that separate Sporthaven Beach from the parking area. Had there been any chance of a big tsunami, I would have been watching from the Harris Beach overlook, high and dry – as I did when the similarly very small tsunami caused by the Chilean earthquake lapped Oregon shores in February 2010.

I seriously doubt anyone will be headed for the beach after an 8.5, or bigger, quake. Most people will be heading for the hills.


Fishermen 10 to 20 miles out to sea feel nothing, oblivious to the shaking in Brookings.

The closer the giant waves get to the coast, the higher they become, pushed by the shallow bottom to reach heights of 30 and 40 feet by the time they hit the shoreline.

Twelve minutes after the shaking began, the first wave washes in, a 40-foot wall of water rushing ashore with a sound like 10 freight trains. It washes everything ahead of it, cars, buildings, huge driftwood logs. The wave uses the boats from the harbor as battering rams, smashing into the remnants of the bridge and contines upriver, sweeping away the many riverside homes and trailer parks, leaving their battered remains at Social Security Bar.

The massive wave chews into the high cliffs, undermining them, dropping home after home to their doom. The wave engulfs many smaller cliffs, washing away the houses perched on top.

The condos at Macklyn Cove are smashed and the Brookings city sewage treatment plant is inundated by seawater. Seacliff Terrace is washed away, as are the homes on the ocean side of Memory Lane, Buena Vista Loop, Otter Terrace, Tanbark Road and Schooner Bay Drive.

At Harris Beach State Park, the waves bury the picnic area and rush up the road toward the campground, but stop short of the entrance station.

The port is completely destroyed – erased from the face of the planet.


What will I be doing after the shaking stops and the tsunami retreats? Checking on my family first. Unless it happens in the middle of the night, in which case we’ll be erecting a tent outside, well away from anything that is likely to fall on us.

Our camping gear, including sleeping bags, a propane cook stove, canned food and other supplies, sits in our storage shed, ready for quick service if we need to evacuate our house for a long time.

Next, I will be setting off to do my job, to gather information. Are the schools still standing? Does the Curry Coastal Pilot still exist? I’ll be checking in with the police at city hall, and likely relaying information to my husband, Mike, who is a ham radio operator, one of the few people in the region who will have any kind of communication with the outside world.

Most likely, I’ll be on my bicycle – probably the most efficient way to get around, along with walking and on horseback.


As the first tsunami wave retreats, the survivors scramble through the wreckage, seeking family members and friends, but not for long. They know another wave is approaching and they must find higher ground.

An hour later, a second wave arrives, bigger than the first. But it finds few victims. Most of those who escaped the first wave have gathered on high ground, at Brookings-Harbor High School and other elevated locations.

Over the next few days, Brookings is hit by more waves, and than 100 aftershocks, most of them registering a 6.0 or larger.

That night, families camp in tents on the high school sports fields, or in their yards, fearful their homes, if they’re still standing, may collapse during one of the many aftershocks.

Local response agencies do what they can, but lack sufficient emergency supplies.

And outside help isn’t coming – not right away.


Pilot editor Scott Graves believes the Pilot will be able to get some kind of information out ­­– like the New Orleans Sun-Herald did when they used satellite phones to reach the outside world after Hurricane Katrina.

But how do we get the information out to local residents here? The disaster will cut off access to the Internet as well as to cell phones and land lines, according to DOGAMI predictions, and it will take weeks to get everything back up and running.

Mike suggested putting up a bulletin board on the outside wall of the Pilot building – assuming the building hasn’t collapsed. A generator could be used to power a laptop computer and printer. Information relayed from ham radio operators could then be printed and distributed.

 

In Gold Beach and Crescent City, the hospitals are still standing, but the structures are heavily damaged and the interiors are in shambles. The floors are strewn with broken glass and smashed medical supplies. It will take a great deal of time and effort to get everything back into working order.

Inland, Interstate 5 is no longer a navigable highway. Bridges and overpasses have collapsed. Abandoned vehicles block all lanes. The National Guard in Medford is short-handed; most of the troops can’t get through. Those who can are only able to reach victims in their own area. Other disaster units have been diverted to the devastation in Eugene, Salem and Portland.

Brookings is alone.


In normal times, the Brookings area is a relatively remote and isolated place. After a disaster of this magnitude, it will be truly cut off. All towns within 100 miles will be just as damaged as Brookings. It won’t be a local event from which we can be rescued by resources coming from Grants Pass, Medford, Eureka or Coos Bay.

Once the supplies currently in stores are gone, they’re gone. Residents who took the time and trouble to prepare for a disaster ahead of time  will be, if not completely comfortable, at least better off than those who didn’t believe it was necessary to prepare.


Residents carefully enter their damaged, unsafe homes and dig out from the rubble whatever canned food, blankets and other supplies they can find. Police and sheriff’s deputies ration food salvaged from grocery stores. Safe drinking water is in short supply – only persons with a heating source, or a supply of chlorine bleach, are able to boil or disinfect water from the river.

First to arrive, a few days after the quake/tsunami, are the medical crews, flown in by helicopter. They bring medical supplies and limited amounts of food and water, and evacuate the injured and sick.

Finally, a week after the disaster struck, a U.S. Navy ship appears off the coast. Helicopters and landing craft begin dropping supplies: water, MRE food packets, blankets, medicine, bandages.

Weeks later, the power comes back on. Most wood-frame homes have survived intact, but much inside is broken, ruined.


After the big one hits, Brookings will rise again. Many will stay to rebuild, while others move on, to start again elsewhere.

Oregon Indian legends warned their people to “weave long ropes” and have them in their boats for when the next big wave would come.

The people who were prepared could ride the wave, then tie their boat to a treetop, so when the wave retreated, they’d remain on land. Those who didn’t have a long rope would be washed out to sea, never to be seen again.

We may not need long ropes in Brookings, but the idea is the same. Prepare.

Because, according to the experts, it’s not a question of “if” a major earthquake will strike, but when.