Is West Coast ready for a tsunami? Oregon towns hold tsunami drill

Three towns in Oregon are holding a tsunami drill Thursday. The 2011 tsunami in Japan prompted preparation efforts in Oregon.

AP Photo/Heri Juanda
A sign showing a tsunami evacuation route in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia. Residents living in tsunami-scarred Aceh province should prepare themselves for a possible repeat of the 2004 disaster, a leading seismologist said. In Oregon, residents of three towns are practicing their tsunami evacuation procedures on May 31, 2012.

Thousands of people in three Oregon coastal communities are holding their first tsunami evacuation drill, stirred to action by the 2011 tsunami that devastated coastal towns in Japan.

Coos Bay Fire Chief Stan Gibson said the vivid TV images of last year's tsunami in Japan have made people on the Oregon Coast take the possibility much more seriously than about 10 years ago, when new signs laying out tsunami evacuation routes were greeted with complaints they would just scare the tourists..

"Seeing seawalls being breached, seeing buildings and cars being tossed around like nothing, I think that really got peoples' attention," he said.

IN PICTURES: 2011 tsunami in Japan

The 2004 tsunami in Sumatra triggered federal legislation that is helping the West Coast get ready for a big one, paying for a new set of tsunami maps in Oregon, and evacuation drills in coastal communities up and down the coast, said Rick Wilson, a senior engineering geologist with the California Geological Survey. The Tsunami Warning Education Act is due to sunset in September.

In the Coos Bay area, the program has been paying for the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries to send community outreach teams door-to-door and hold meetings to hand out evacuation maps, teach people the threats from local and distant tsunamis, and what preparations they should make, said local spokesman Mikel Chavez.

All that preparation culminates at 1:55 p.m., Thursday when an announcement goes out over the radio. Organizers hope several thousand people at schools, businesses and government offices will grab a few essentials, a bottle of water, and walk to higher ground. Coos Bay, North Bend and Charleston are taking part.

When the tsunami from Japan hit last year, residents had hours to get ready, and severe damage was limited to harbors such as Crescent City, Calif. One person was swept away and died.

The much bigger threat here is a megaquake from the Cascadia Subduction Zone, where two plates of the Earth's crust butt together off the coast. When they slip, they could send a 40-foot surge of water moving at the speed of a jetliner into the Oregon coast, Northern California and Washington. After feeling the quake, people have about 20 minutes to reach higher ground. Authorities advise them to walk, because roads could be impassable and power lines down. Geologic evidence shows the zone jolts on average every 300 to 600 years, and the last one was 312 years ago.

By the time a surge works its way through the bay and into downtown, it would only be about three feet deep said Gibson.

That would still flood Blossom Gulch Elementary School. During the drill, more than 500 kids there will duck and cover under their desks, as if an earthquake was violently shaking the ground, said Vice Principal Jared Olsen. Then they will file outside and hike a quarter mile up the hill to the high school football field. Each will have a number so they don't get lost.

At Coast Guard Air Station North Bend, just 17 feet above sea level, one of the five helicopters will fly to higher ground at Southwest Oregon Community College, where students and staff are to gather at assembly points. Coast Guard staff will stay at their posts in case of a real emergency, but some will hike uphill to an assembly point, said Lt. Michael Baird.

In Charleston Harbor, Wade Raub lives on his sailboat and works on a commercial tuna fishing boat. He said he was not taking part in the drill, but all the people in the boat basin were plugged in and aware of the dangers.

"If we really have a tsunami, I'll be cutting lines and sailing over the bar," into the open ocean, he said. "That's the safest place to be. You give me 10 minutes, I'll be over the bar. Give me 20 minutes, I'll be a mile out."

IN PICTURES: 2011 tsunami in Japan

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press

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