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Planning for a
Gold Beach tsunami

By Dave Duffy

Dave Duffy

Issue #94 • July/August, 2005

For years I've known that Gold Beach, the hometown of Backwoods Home Magazine, was in a tsunami hazard area. They have tsunami drills at the local schools, and there are tsunami warning signs around town. In 1964 a tsunami generated by an Alaska earthquake killed 11 people in Crescent City, a mere 53 miles south of Gold Beach.

But I did not know until recently that Gold Beach, like other Northwest coastal towns, sits atop the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a meeting place of tectonic plates that is very similar to the subduction zone that generated the great tsunami that killed 250,000 people in Asia six months ago. The only difference, according to a Discovery Channel documentary, is that the Cascadia Subduction Zone will likely generate tsunami waves that are much bigger than the ones that devastated Asia. Where Asia experienced waves on the order of 30 or 40 feet, we will quite possibly endure waves from 50 to 100 feet.

Hence my keen interest in tsunamis that prompted John Silveira's excellent article in this issue. John and I both did research on the article so were well informed by the time we attended a local "tsunami information meeting" in Gold Beach. The 14 "experts" who constituted our local tsunami panel confirmed our research: our local subduction zone will eventually generate a quake of 8.5 to 9 on the Richter scale, which will in turn generate tsunami waves with a possible height of 50 to 100 feet, and Gold Beach residents will have between 5 and 15 minutes from the start of the quake to get to higher ground. The type of quake at our subduction zone will be fairly long lasting, from 1 to 4 minutes, which effectively cuts our escape time from the ensuing tsunami waves to 1 to 11 minutes.

I had one pressing question to ask the panel: How do my three young boys, ages 10, 12, and 13, get evacuated from the local grammar school in the event of this giant quake and tsunami? The school sits at 43 feet. In fact, how do all 500 students at the school, including the young kindergartners, get at least 50 feet above the school in that short amount of time?

So after listening for two hours to the 14 "experts" warn residents that this anticipated giant quake and tsunami were virtual certainties some day in the future, and that residents had best prepare for it now, I asked my question. Three of the experts volunteered lengthy assurances to me that the school had things under control and that the students practiced regular tsunami drills.

But the first chink in their assurances came only a few minutes later when a panel member noted that a high power electrical line ran up the hill behind the school. The hill was the prime anticipated escape route for the children. A local power company employee quickly assured everyone that Bonneville Power, the owner of the line, would automatically shut off power to that line should such a big quake occur. Besides, another panel member said, just in case the power line comes down and is still electrified, there was another escape route, behind the bus barn at the back of the school. "But the bus barn is a quarter mile away!" another panel member cautioned.

All this made me a bit nervous, of course, even though panel members assured the audience that the power line question and the alternate escape route would be thoroughly checked out. The day after the meeting I began doing my own investigating. I had been assured by "experts" in the past about various things and was often disappointed when the experts turned out to have scant knowledge backing up their assurances.

First I asked my children and some of their friends how many tsunami drills they had taken part in during the school year. "None" was the unanimous reply. The day after I questioned the children, the school did indeed hold a tsunami drill, but according to the kids they walked over to the bus barn (elevation about 60 feet), then back around the block to the school.

I then met with school officials responsible for disaster preparedness, and they insisted the school had had two tsunami drills this school year, which is still a far cry from the "regular drills" the panel of experts had talked about. But during the two drills the students had not gone up any hills that would have escaped 50 to 100 foot tsunami waves. They also did not know whether the electricity to the power line that lined the main escape route would actually be turned off in time. It was a far cry from the assurances I got at the meeting of experts. Silveira also informed them that a tsunami hazard map the "experts" had referred the audience to was based on a 35-foot wave.

The school decided to hold another tsunami drill, one more realistic, before the school year was finished, and they assured me they would investigate once and for all whether or not that power line along the main escape route would be rendered inactive by Bonneville Power. I will also work with them and a local Civilian Emergency Preparedness group on Cascadia quake and tsunami planning. Meanwhile I have begun making my own personal plans for my family in the event a big quake and tsunami occur while my children are at school. I've tried to ingrain in my kids how to recognize the conditions that could precede a tsunami, and how to act to save themselves. I've also struck a deal with a local minister who lives on a "safe" hill behind the school to collect my kids from the tsunami evacuation area in the event I am unable to.

There is a lesson in all this. Don't ever rely on experts for anything, especially when it comes to the safety of your family. Rely on yourself. It's the same old self-reliance story. The buck stops with you.

Read More by Dave Duffy

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