Killing Time in the Tsunami Zone

"They tell you not to wait for the siren because it's not gonna go off. The guy with that job is gonna be gettin' outta Dodge with everybody else." So said my tablemates when the subject of tsunamis came up. Over the hum of a couple guys singing Darius Rucker's "Wagon Wheel," we'd been discussing the local kiteboarding scene and the inaudibility of the warning siren (tested monthly) from the beach. 

For the last week, give or take a day, I've been hanging out on Oregon's "Sunset Coast," which occupies the state's southwest edge. It's an interesting area, a lot like the northern California of my childhood, complete with post-recession economic malaise and a persistent population of artists, ranchers, and generally stubborn pioneer stock who give the place a character all its own. I'm still trying to figure out exactly why these little seaside towns aren't packed at this point in the high season. After all, the whole strip is wildfire-smoke-free and about 35 degrees cooler than any of the cities along I-5, which are only an hour's drive away on the other side of the coastal mountains. Most of the hotels still have space and their rates make their eastern counterparts look greedy.

So, could it be that the offshore Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) is responsible for the low tourist turnout and high availability of coastal properties? After all, the potential for a major Northwest earthquake has gotten some press in recent years. It's not as though geologists haven't known about this Vancouver-to-Mendocino fault line for some time, though. It's just been quite a bit more chill than its southern cousin, the San Andreas, which is scheduled to lop off Los Angeles and turn Oakland into oceanfront property when its own "big one" hits. 

The CSZ last ruptured in 1700, according to oral history and proven by scientific investigation. It's overdue for another massive earthquake and the history-making tsunami that will follow. Geologists estimate there's a 90 percent chance of the CSZ letting loose within the next 40 years. Around here, folks don't say "if" there's an earthquake. They say "when."

It's times like this that make me compare the East and West Coasts. Eastern natural disasters are generally limited to things for which there is a warning period. "Blizzards" that are forecasted days in advance and just the sweetest little things by Plains, Rockies, and Sierras/Cascades standards, for example. Or hurricanes that may result in property damage but don't have to lead to the loss of life as long as people heed the preceding days of evacuation recommendations and orders. On the West Coast, in contrast, there are blizzards of eat-your-neighbor fame, warning-free, Pompeii-like volcanoes, and sneak-attack earthquakes like those on the CSZ.

The mentality of people who occupy this space seems to be focused on getting busy living. With several days or weeks of provisions laid away, the know-how and tools to fend for oneself, and the knowledge that the closer you are to the ocean, the more likely you are to be on the wrong side of a broken road, even if you do hear the tsunami warning. 

My dinner pals described the situation, as we sat at a picnic table in the backyard of the local greasy spoon, protected from the overcast skies by a simple tent canopy. The pictures they painted seemed somehow at odds with the full flavor of grass-fed burgers and farm-fresh veggies. 

The earthquake will come first. If it's not a huge amount of rumbling, it might be in Alaska, and that means only the real coastal area will get the tsunami. But it also means folks might not have any warning that it's coming. If the CSZ goes, it's anticipated to register over 9.0 on the Richter scale. People here don't seem to say much about that, but the fact is, most of the buildings for miles inland may well be heavily damaged, if not flattened. Fires and floods are likely. Roads will be broken and impassible. All infrastructure, from water to electricity to phone lines to fuel, is likely to be completely cut off. Buildings on the bluffs above the Pacific, along with the bluffs themselves, may simply cease to exist.

That's all before the tsunami hits. From the moment the ground stops shaking, the locals all know, they have no more than 10 minutes to get free of the inundation zone. For a major rupture of the CSZ, that's about 2.5 miles from the beach, or farther in flat spots. Now think about everything that's happened during the earthquake. A car may be useless. So, dig out from whatever you're trapped in or under, hope you're not injured, and run two-and-a-half miles overland, through sand, sloughs, rivers, forests, blackberry brambles and scrub roses, up and down hills ... in 10 minutes.

The sobering fact is, most people in the inundation zone won't get out. For those that survive the earthquake and tsunami, local emergency management guidelines recommend being prepared for at least two weeks entirely cut off from the outside world. On the best of days, these coastal towns are dependent on US-101 (the Oregon Coast Highway, part of the famed Pacific Coast Highway) for road transportation. The closest routes inland begin 15 or 45 miles north, or 45 miles south, on state highways that cross ravines and creeks on old bridges, tunnel through mountains, and eventually reach relative civilization along I-5 somewhere between Roseburg and Ashland. This is the place where helicopters and small planes will be critical for restocking food and providing access to medical care.

Until the ground starts shaking, though, the kiteboarding's great, the hiking and cycling are right out the door, and the views are spectacular. I say take your chances.