Tsunami Roadshow focuses on survival
Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer   
March 26, 2013 09:19 pm

The earthquake is your warning, and you’d better be prepared.

“There is no earthquake season, like tornados,” Althea Rizzo of Oregon Emergency Management told a standing-room-only crowd at the Elks Lodge in Brookings Saturday. “They’re not polite, like hurricanes and give you a five-day warning.”

The earthquake, she repeated, is your warning.

“The National Tsunami Warning System will not warn you,” she said. “There will be no text, no siren, no NOAA. Aunt Martha’s not going to call from Ohio and say, ‘There’s a tsunami coming!’ The earthquake is the warning.”

Geologic history

Rizzo addressed new findings about the Cascadia Fault and statewide plans to retrofit vital infrastructure — bridges, hospitals and schools among them. Most are woefully inadequate, and a new report issued last week says a major earthquake will could wipe out commerce, affecting even the national economy for years to come, if buildings aren’t brought into compliance.

“We live in a geologically active area,” Rizzo said. “When you moved to Oregon, you might not have known that. But wherever you go, you have to worry about hazards. We choose to live here.

“There is so much we can do to prepare for earthquakes and tsunamis,” she added.

Besides retrofitting and other large-scale projects, other work that needs to be done, particularly along the coastline, is improving evacuation signage and routes.

Here, people may or may not know to get off the beach and get to high ground — or which route is fastest. In Japan, the centers of sidewalks feature footprints leading the way to safe refuge.

Vertical evacuation shelters can be constructed in areas where there is no high ground. And everyone needs to practice evacuation from every place they spend time, be it home, school, work or the grocery store.

Emergency Services Coordinator Don Kendall said he has ordered “several miles of Visqueen” in anticipation of transforming local parks into tent cities. The high school sports area could be a staging site for helicopters.

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Many people know the drill: A big earthquake is overdue, people need to get to high ground and plan on being self-sufficient because it will be awhile along the coast before help arrives. Perhaps, Rizzo said, weeks.

To drive home the point why southwestern Oregon will be even more isolated after such an event is to take in the extent of damage that will take place along the 600-mile-long fault line.

Fifteen million people will be affected from Northern California to British Columbia. Bridges all along the coast — including three interstates and two railroads in the Portland area alone — will collapse, making vehicular travel and shipping impossible. Interstate commerce will be interrupted. Interstates and airport runways will crumble. Underground infrastructure such as sewer and water pipes won’t just break, but pop out of the ground. There will be hundreds of breaks — hundreds every mile — in the electrical lines from Bonneville Dam, Kendall said.

And that’s in the big cities, up and down the coast, in three states and Canada — to which rescuers will respond first.

Brookings and Harbor, with a population of almost 10,000, will not be a high priority, Rizzo said.

Along the coast, major bridges will be demolished — most likely by the quake and not the ensuing tsunami — preventing travel north, east or south, but every small bridge over every creek will be gone as well, leaving individuals or groups as outliers on virtual islands to make do until someone, from somewhere, can rescue them.

Resources — food, tents, cots, medical equipment — are stationed in Idaho. From there they will be flown via helicopter to Klamath Falls, Redmond and Langlois, and distributed from there, Hernandez said.

“They’ll be coming in, but at a real slow pace,” he said.

“Japan’s earthquake tilted the axis of the Earth,” Rizzo said. “It slowed the rotation of the Earth. The energy released could have fueled the world for 47 years. And this one? They will feel this thing in Idaho. It will be very big.”

There have been 41 subduction earthquakes along the Cascadia Fault in the past 10,000 years. Of those, 19 involved the entire fault line from northern California to British Columbia. Scientists now say the chances — if they can be truly predicted — of that happening again are 37 percent in the next 50 years.

“That’s smack off your coast,” Rizzo said. “(Historically), all but one started in the south and went north. Southern Oregon gets it every time.”

And it will be years — not months, as commonly thought — before infrastructure is back to some semblance of normalcy.

“It will be years to get even assistance to build roads,” said American Red Cross team member Tony Hernandez. “Highway 101 will be gone. And that’s not me saying it; it’s ODOT. Highway 101. Gone.”

It took seven weeks to get to communities in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, he said. They were a half-mile away and FEMA denied them entry.

“It takes us four hours to get lights back on when lightning takes it out,” Hernandez noted. “How long will it take to get them on after an earthquake?”

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Preparation is key.

During the Biscuit Fire, an estimated 15,000 to 17,000 people were on alert to possibly evacuate the Illinois Valley. But the prevailing attitude was that “it won’t happen here,” Hernandez said.

“People said, ‘Nothing ever happens here,’” he said. “Remember the fire in Ashland? They could see the smoke, smell the smoke, taste the smoke, feel the smoke. And no one was moving. It wasn’t until the back-burn at Selma — the whole mountain was on fire. It was a sight to behold. Now they could see flames — and said, ‘This is for real.’ Eleven houses burned down. Tell them it could never happen there.”

People rented trucks and vans — and in some cases unloaded and reloaded them up to five times as they prioritized their personal items.

Here, a Go-Kit is critical. A list of items that should be put in it is available at www.ready.gov, a FEMA website or www.redcross.org/prepare.

“A lot of it is peace of mind,” said Brookings Police Lt. Donny Dotson. “A power bar isn’t going to keep you alive forever. But if you know you have it (a kit), what you have in it will help you, your kids, your pets.”

“What will save us is that we live in the State of Jefferson,” Hernandez said. “It will be neighbors helping neighbors. Families helping families. Strangers helping strangers. Me helping you, you helping your family, your family helping your neighbor. That is what will sustain us as a community.”