Oregon Tsunami

In this July 22, 2019, photo, Scott Ashford, dean of Oregon State University's college of engineering, describes to the media the university's Marine Studies Building, which is being built in a tsunami inundation zone in Newport, Ore. The plan to build it was controversial from the moment it was announced, but now the state's elected officials have gone a step further by repealing a quarter-century-old ban on construction of critical facilities in tsunami inundation zones along the Oregon coast. (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky)

By ANDREW SELSKY Associated Press

NEWPORT, Ore. — With sunlight sparkling off surrounding Yaquina Bay, workers are putting up an ocean-studies building, smack in the middle of an area expected to one day be hit by a tsunami.

Experts say it’s only a matter of time before a shift in a major fault line off the Oregon coast causes a massive earthquake that generates a tsunami as much as seven stories tall.

Even as work on Oregon State University’s Marine Studies Building was underway in Newport, the Legislature went a step further and repealed a ban on construction of new “critical facilities” in tsunami inundation zones, allowing fire stations, police stations and schools to be built in the potential path of a tsunami.

Passage of the bill in June was little noticed during one of the most tumultuous legislative sessions in Oregon history. But it has since been roundly criticized — including by Gov. Kate Brown, who told journalists the bill’s passage was one of her disappointments, even though she signed the measure and previously said it benefited economic development.

Chris Goldfinger, an Oregon State University professor and an earthquake geologist, says putting the $60 million oceanography building in the path of a tsunami is “beyond ironic,” and allowing even more construction threatens lives in favor of development.

“It’s foolhardy. In every other country in the world, best practice for tsunamis is avoidance, not building in a tsunami zone,” Goldfinger said at a symposium for journalists in Newport that included a tour of the construction project.

Proponents of the university facility point out that the building will withstand strong earthquakes and be higher than the biggest tsunami. It will feature a rooftop evacuation site that can accommodate more than 900 people, accessed via an exterior ramp.

Two days of supplies, including water, food and first aid, will be kept on the roof, said Cinamon Moffett, research facility coordinator for the marine center. Once the water subsides, survivors would be evacuated to a community college on a nearby hill, she said.

An earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone, which extends in the ocean off Northern California to Canada’s Vancouver Island, has a 37 percent probability of happening off Oregon in the next 50 years, with a slightly lower chance of one striking near Washington state, Goldfinger said. Cascadia earthquakes have an average magnitude of around 9, making them among the world’s biggest.

Evidence of a Cascadia earthquake’s awesome destructive power is visible 30 miles up the coast from Newport.

There, a “ghost forest” of Sitka spruces juts up from a beach in the tiny town of Neskowin. An earthquake 2,000 years ago likely caused the ground beneath the trees to plunge, and tsunami debris buried them. The remnants were partially uncovered by storms in 1997. Today, the barnacle-encrusted trees stand like sentinels, facing the Pacific Ocean with vacation homes and a motel nearby.

The last time the ocean reared up from a Cascadia earthquake was in 1700.

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