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First U.S. Tsunami Shelter Planned as Earthquake Looms

Richard A. Lovett
for National Geographic News
October 23, 2009
 
When a major earthquake triggers a giant tsunami in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, as experts predict, one coastal town will be ready.

Residents of the small Oregon town of Cannon Beach are preparing to build the first tsunami-resistant shelter in the U.S. (Get tsunami facts.)

The updated design of city hall, which would double the building's cost from U.S. $2 million to $4 million, reflects a new focus on disaster preparedness in the Pacific Northwest, experts said this week at a meeting of the Geological Society of America in Portland, Oregon.

The Pacific Northwest is one of the most dangerous earthquake and tsunami zones in the world—capable of producing magnitude 9 earthquakes followed within minutes by deadly, 50-foot (15.2-meter) high waves.

The next big earthquake could happen tomorrow or in several hundreds of years—no one knows for sure.

(Related: " Tsunamis More Likely to Hit U.S. Than Asia.")

The culprit is the Cascadia subduction zone, which geologists say is a near twin of the fault zone that produced the deadly Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in late 2004.

Tsunami Refuge

One way of improving survival odds is to build tsunami-resistant shelters in what's expected to be the worst danger zones, said Yumei Wang, a geotechnical engineer at the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries in Portland.

Such buildings are built on sturdy, pillar-like stilts, with embankments or seawalls to dissipate waves.

The structures also need ramps that allow quick entry into the shelter. Buildings are usually designed for people to exit, she said—"but in this case, we want to get people into the building."

Tsunami shelters exist in Japan, but Cannon Beach (population 1,700) is the first American town to take steps toward building one.

The structure, which will be completed in the next three years, would have a flat roof on which 1,000 to 2,000 people could take refuge, Wang said.

Unprepared

Patrick Corcoran, a hazards outreach specialist with the Oregon Sea Grant program at Oregon State University, likes the idea—in part.

"I think it's pushing the technology in a good direction," he said, though he added emergency training is also crucial.

Disaster preparation in the Pacific Northwest has lagged behind the rapidly increasing geological knowledge of the region, Corcoran said.

"[We need to] get beyond the fascination with the physical phenomena and on to applying that science to our daily behavior," he said.

Nathan Wood, a geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey's Western Geographic Research Center, agreed.

Simply mapping potential danger zones and telling people to run for high ground is not enough, Wood said.

"If this were football," he said, "we'd be spending a lot of money on the quarterback, having no idea if the receiver is a five-year-old, a retiree, or someone who just moved here from Iowa."
 

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