COOS BAY, Oregon (AP) — Several thousand Oregon Coast residents on alert after last year’s devastating earthquake in Japan took part in their first tsunami evacuation drill Thursday, stopping what they were doing and walking uphill to assembly points where volunteers handed out bottles of water and grab-bags of essentials.
Unlike a real tsunami, there were no sirens and no tremors from a massive offshore earthquake in the towns of Coos Bay, North Bend and Charleston.
But after weeks of door-to-door canvassing, flashing roadside signs, and community meetings sponsored by the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries with help from a federal grant, people knew what was coming at 2 p.m. when an announcement came over a local radio station. They also knew that in the event of an actual massive earthquake generating a surge from the Pacific Ocean they would have had about 20 minutes to get to higher ground before tsunami waves arrived.
At Blossom Gulch Elementary School, the kids in Carli Ainsworth’s kindergarten class watched the clock, calling out the minutes until principal Jodi O’Mara announced over the PA that the drill was on. They got up from the rug where they were holding show and tell with Gameboys and monster trucks, and crawled under the brightly colored tables, peering out between the chrome chair legs.
“It’s not a real one,” one boy assured a friend. “It’s just tiny.”
When the announcement came it was time to evacuate, one little boy said solemnly, “Phew, that was close.”
Then the 400 kids, teachers and staff walked uphill on sidewalks past bungalows, rhododendrons in bloom and flashing fire department SUV lights to a high school football field.
Along the way, Tom Paris called out from behind his picket fence that they were doing great, and only 15 minutes had passed.
Since his home was at 50 feet elevation, he was not taking part, but applauded the effort.
“It needs to be done after what has gone on around the world,” said Paris, 79. “Hopefully, I’m too old to see one. I’ve got my boat tied up out back if it comes to that.”
When the tsunami from the Japan earthquake reached the U.S. last year, coastal residents had hours to prepare, and severe damage was limited to harbors such as Crescent City, Calif. One person was swept away from a beach and died.
The much bigger threat here would be a potential megaquake from the Cascadia Subduction Zone, where two plates of the Earth’s crust butt together miles off the coast. When they slip, they could send a 40-foot (12-meter) 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 3 feet deep, but enough to do a lot of damage in the low-lying downtown area, said Coos Bay Fire Chief Stan Gibson.
Gibson said vivid TV images of last year’s tsunami in Japan made people take the possibility more seriously than a decade 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.
Headcounts at the eight assembly points in Coos Bay showed 2,775 people taking part. Numbers from North Bend, Charleston and Southwest Oregon Community College were not immediately available.
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.
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.
The department tells people that there is about a 10 percent chance over the next 30 years that the subduction zone could unleash a major quake and tsunami. That compares to a 60 percent chance someone will be in a car accident, a 9.5 percent chance a vehicle will be stolen, and a 0.9 percent chance someone will be killed in a car wreck, said project operations manager Rachel Lyles.
Amy Larson and two co-workers at car dealership along the bayfront on U.S. Highway 101 hiked up the hill to the high school, where volunteers handed out red nylon bags with shaving cream, toothbrushes, and other hygiene items. It took them 9 minutes. On their way back, Larson said she was not actively worried, but felt it made sense to be ready.
“You can’t live your life worrying,” she said, looking at the white clouds and blue sky overhead. “I still want to live here.”