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Community Resilience: Sea Grant Coastal Hazards Specialist Helps Oregonians Prepare for the "Big One"

Community Resilience: Sea Grant Coastal Hazards Specialist Helps Oregonians Prepare for the "Big One"


By Pat Kight, Oregon Sea Grant

When you live on a seismically active coastline and the news keeps repeating dire warnings about the coming “Big One,” it's easy to fall into denial – or despair. Oregon Sea Grant's Pat Corcoran wants Oregonians to take a different approach: Don't panic, face the reality of living on shaky ground and get prepared. 

Oregon Sea Grant’s Pat Corcoran says, “The key is that whatever you do to prepare is going to be useful, whether it's an 8.0 [magnitude] quake or a 9.0. Doing something to prepare now is a lot better than doing nothing.” Image: Lynn Ketchum, Oregon State University.

"We need to find a sweet spot between fear and action,” said Corcoran, who for the past decade has worked with Oregon's coastal communities and state agencies on earthquake and tsunami preparedness. “What I try to do is temper the tendency of people to toggle between the poles of 'It won't happen here' and 'It will be so bad that there's no use worrying about it.' Both responses are a form of denial. The fact is, they do happen here. And there are lots of things we can do to prepare." 

The Pacific Northwest sits just east of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, where a deep-sea tectonic plate is slipping inexorably under the North American continent. Researchers at Oregon State University (OSU) say it is inevitable that will trigger an earthquake of magnitude 8.0 to 9.0 or greater (the latter would be as strong as Japan's 2011 Tohoku quake). OSU oceanographer Chris Goldfinger, one of the world's leading experts on subduction zone earthquakes, says the geologic record and current seismic research indicate a 37 percent chance of such a quake in the next 50 years.

Corcoran, however, has seen that focusing on the extremes causes people to deny the “Big One” will ever happen – or leaves them thinking there's nothing they can do to prepare. 

Oregon Sea Grant’s Pat Corcoran saw for himself what a powerful tsunami can do when he visited Japan a year after the devastating 2011 Tohoku quake. Image: Pat Corcoran.

“My approach is to persuade them not to let the fear of thinking about a 9.0 earthquake paralyze them into inaction,” he said. “The key is that whatever you do to prepare is going to be useful, whether it's an 8.0 [magnitude] quake or a 9.0. Doing something to prepare now is a lot better than doing nothing.” 

For coastal residents and visitors, “doing something” might mean preparing household and business disaster-emergency kits for home and car, practicing family earthquake drills or identifying and regularly walking the nearest tsunami evacuation route. 

Corcoran's efforts have already sparked discussion and informed others about the desirability of relocating schools and emergency services out of tsunami hazard zones, setting up neighborhood supply caches on high ground and holding regular community-wide disaster drills. Even inland cities like Portland are starting to prepare for fallen bridges and other urban destruction from a major earthquake or a tsunami-driven surge of water up the Columbia River.

A subject of frequent media interviews, Corcoran has been featured in the New York Times, on Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), and elsewhere. He coordinated with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries and Office of Emergency Management to give coastal communities access to refined maps and new evacuation route signage. He contributed to OPB's documentary Unprepared, viewed by more than 240,000 people, and its associated “Aftershock” website, which drew a quarter-million visitors in its first six months.

Corcoran's efforts are a continuation of more than two decades of Oregon Sea Grant (OSG) work with stakeholders and state agencies to increase disaster preparedness on the Oregon coast.

Starting in the 1990s, then-OSG Extension coastal hazards specialist Jim Good (now a professor emeritus with the OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences) helped convene meetings that brought together scientists, engineers, state and local officials and coastal stakeholders to begin talking about ways to increase the region's ability to withstand and recover from a major offshore earthquake and tsunami. 

Sea Grant Extension Specialist stands in front of large grounded ship
Former Oregon Sea Grant Extension specialist Jim Good helped create the iconic tsunami hazard signs adopted by Japan, Thailand and other countries in seismically active regions. Image: Tom Weeks, Oregon State University.

Good's work sparked collaboration around the region, and produced, among other things, the iconic tsunami hazard signs common along the Oregon coast. (The design has been adopted by Japan, Thailand and other countries in seismically active regions).

Corcoran acknowledges that a magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami – what he calls "the largest of the large" – could devastate coastal communities and destroy infrastructure throughout western Oregon and Washington, including roads, bridges, water and sewer lines and the power grid.

But he adds that a more probable scenario is an earthquake closer to "the average side of large." He suggests that people start by preparing for the "most likely next event" – and that doesn't necessarily mean the destruction of western Oregon as we know it. "Everything you need to do to prepare for a magnitude 8 earthquake also prepares you for a magnitude 9," Corcoran said. "Start with the doable, and build on that."

Learn more: 

Oregon Sea Grant publications and videos on earthquake/tsunami preparedness

Pat Corcoran's “Coastal Natural Hazards” page, Clatsop County Extension

Unprepared: Will We Be Ready For The Megaquake In Oregon?” (Oregon Field Guide/OPB)

Aftershock – Learn how a Cascadia earthquake will affect your Oregon location (OPB)

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