OCEAN SHORES, Wash. — The 350 children at Ocean Shores Elementary School put their earthquake survival plans into practice, dropping under desks to overcome the convulsions, then rushing upstairs to on the second floor to wait for the coming tsunami.
Unless something changes, their preparations will likely be in vain.
The Cascadia Fault off the Pacific Northwest Coast is set to experience a massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake at some point, scientists say, a rupture that would propel a wall of water over a much of the northwest coast within minutes. Low-lying coastal neighborhoods in Washington, Oregon and northern California are reported to have less than 10 feet of water or more, with Ocean Shores Elementary School, Washington, facing flooding of up to 23 feet depth.
Students from the second-story shelter scramble to their exercise stands 13 feet off the ground — in a structure that wasn’t built to withstand a raging tsunami in the first place.
“The fact is, if a tsunami happens tomorrow, we’re going to lose all of our kids,” said Andrew Kelly, principal of the North Beach School District, which includes Ocean Shores. Mr Kelly is one of a growing number of local officials who are calling for a network of buildings and elevated platforms along the northwest coast that could provide escape for thousands of people who could otherwise be condemned in the event of tsunami.
On Tuesday, voters in Ocean Shores and neighboring communities will decide whether to approve a bonding measure that, in part, would build new vertical additions to two schools, giving students and nearby residents a place to escape a expanding ocean.
Scientists have been warning for years that another catastrophic earthquake could erupt at any time in the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a 600-mile-long “megathrust” fault that stretches from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Cape Mendocino, California.
An earthquake from the fault, located about 70 miles offshore, could immediately cause land to fall along the shoreline by several feet. The sudden movement under the sea would send massive waves towards the shore. And while recent tsunamis caused by earthquakes and volcanoes in the Pacific brought small surges to the west coast of the United States a few hours later, a wave from Cascadia would arrive on the coasts within 15 minutes.
Along many stretches of the northwest coast there are no cliffs or tall buildings to climb – nowhere to go.
The lack of evacuation options means the death toll could be nearly unfathomable, far exceeding any other natural disaster in US history. In Washington state, according to a 9.0 scenario used by the state for its estimates, about 70,000 people would likely be in the lowlands that could be engulfed by a large tsunami, and 32,000 of them n wouldn’t have any nearby high ground to escape to within 15 minutes. .
Depending on the season and time of day, Oregon estimates that 5,000 to 20,000 people could die along the coast in a similar event, largely due to a lack of medical options. escape; the state has predicted an even deadlier earthquake, based on the geological record, which could create a 100-foot-tall tsunami in some locations. More deaths are expected in northern California, including Crescent City, where a tsunami from Alaska killed 11 people in 1962.
The question, say scientists, is not if but when. The probability of a 9.0 megaquake on the Cascadia Fault within the next 50 years, according to the research, is about one in nine (although the probability of the precise type of earthquake considered in the planning models used by each State is less); the odds of a smaller but still powerful earthquake – greater than magnitude 7.0 – are one in three. Pressure continues to build along the hundreds of kilometers where the Juan de Fuca Plate pushes beneath the North American Plate.
“Every day, on average, they’re getting closer together at about the same rate as fingernails grow,” said Corina Allen, Washington state’s chief risk geologist. “Each year the earthquake does not occur, there is a greater chance that it will occur the following year.”
Over the years, authorities have posted signs indicating evacuation routes and plotted ways to move people to higher ground. But many communities remain painfully vulnerable.
In the Long Beach area of Washington, for example, several communities — home to thousands of people — lie along a flat, narrow peninsula that stretches more than 20 miles. In recent years, authorities had considered building an artificial hill to help with tsunami evacuation, but abandoned the idea when modeling showed it had to be much higher than was feasible.
Nowhere is perhaps more vulnerable than Ocean Shores, an idyllic community of 6,700 people, with thousands more who visit in the summer to escape city life and enjoy miles of pristine beach alongside the thunderous waves. The city is low in elevation, and the tsunami that could accompany a 9.0 rupture would overwhelm it.
People could try to drive out, but officials expect roads to be warped and potholed, or covered in power lines, trees and debris. The expected subduction would cause the entire area to sink abruptly up to seven feet; the shaking could cause sandy soils to liquefy before the tsunami reaches the shore.
People might try running for higher ground outside of town, but Ocean Shores sits on a six-mile-long peninsula. Those living towards the southern end would be about eight miles from the heights. Depending on their location, residents could have just 10 minutes after the shaking stops before the wave begins to overwhelm them.
“In 10 minutes isn’t a lot of time to get very far,” Ms Allen said.
The best option may be to climb onto a roof or climb a tree. But many buildings in the area were not built to withstand such an earthquake, let alone a tsunami, which would hurl cars, logs and other debris at objects in its path.
Dozens of other riverside communities are also at risk, researchers said, including Seaside, Gearhart and Tillamook, Oregon; Crescent City and the Samoa Peninsula near Eureka, California; and areas along the Washington Coast.
To improve the odds of survival, Washington state officials have proposed a network of 58 vertical escape structures along the outer coast and advised consideration for dozens more. They could offer 22,000 people an escape option, although thousands more would remain out of reach.
Each structure could cost around $3 million.
Vertical evacuation structures have been adopted in Japan for years, in the form of platforms, towers and artificial berms. They became a haven for many during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, although that event still killed more than 19,000 people.
In the Pacific Northwest, only two vertical escape structures have been constructed so far. One is an Oregon State University building in Newport, Oregon. The other is part of Ocosta Elementary School in Washington. Other cities have considered but not yet built escape towers, including Seaside, Oregon, which moved its middle and high school to the hills east of the city.
In Tokeland, Washington, Charlene Nelson, president of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe, said the tribe had been working on escape strategies for about 18 years. Their first resort was a building in the hills designed as an evacuation center, complete with supplies.
They held training events to get people to the heights, but one of the many families living on the narrow strip of land that juts out into Willapa Bay found it took them 56 minutes to walk to get to the center. The wave would probably arrive in 20 minutes.
The tribe recently dedicated a tower, largely funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with pilings buried 51 feet into the ground and two raised platforms that can accommodate hundreds of people.
Even when the structure is complete, Ms Nelson said, people will need to practice their escape plans and know the routes to possible safety. They need a ready bag with essential supplies – but not enough to slow them down as they run for their lives. There will be no time for hesitation or figuring out which direction to go.
“You have to be prepared, and you have to know what to do, and you have to do it,” she said.
In addition to the damage a tsunami could cause, the earthquake itself would cause widespread devastation, with crumbling buildings, failing bridges, energy disruptions and mass casualties in a 140,000 square mile area, including Seattle and Portland.
The urgency has grown in recent years, which in coastal cities has felt like a countdown.
The last major earthquake on the Cascadia Fault occurred on January 26, 1700, scientists say. Chris Goldfinger, a researcher at Oregon State University, said geological evidence from the past 10,000 years indicates that massive earthquakes of about magnitude 9.0 occur on the fault on average every 430 years. When smaller but still powerful earthquakes on parts of the fault are included, the timeline in some areas shrinks to every 250 years.
It’s been 322 years.
It’s hard to reduce the expected casualty toll when response planning has been largely left to individual communities, Goldfinger said. A comprehensive federal solution with accompanying funding is needed, he said, and there is little time to delay given the amount of work needed to prepare.
“It’s going to dwarf the magnitude of any disaster we’ve ever had,” Mr Goldfinger said. “We know it’s coming.”