Viewpoint: Sue Graves
The recent devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan compels us to take a critical look at the tsunami risk at Waldport High School: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Waldport High School, built in 1958, is the only remaining school in Lincoln County School District located in the Tsunami Inundation Zone. It has 233 students and 26 staff members. It sits at only 12 feet above sea level and is surrounded by water on three sides: The Pacific Ocean to the west, Alsea Bay and River to the north, and Lint Slough on the east side. In August of 2006, The Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries did a seismic evaluation of Waldport High School and rated it as having a “High Collapse Potential.”
The Good: In a “distant tsunami,” from an earthquake far away that we will not feel, we will usually have four hours or more to evacuate. In this case, Waldport High School is prepared. The students and staff at Waldport High School practice tsunami drills three times each year and evacuate by walking up the road just behind the school until they reach high ground. In a real instance of a distant tsunami they would walk (or maybe even be bussed) all the way up to Crestview Heights School, which is located on high ground and out of the tsunami hazard zone. Waldport High School is prepared for a distant tsunami. This is good.
The Bad: Scientists say a huge earthquake from the Cascadia Subduction Zone could happen at any time. This fault is literally 15 miles beneath our feet and when it ruptures violent shaking may last for four to five minutes. It will soon be followed by a series of powerful tsunami waves that will wreak havoc in coastal communities. Scientists say it is not a matter of “if” this will happen, it is a matter of “when.” These magnitude 8 to 9 mega-thrust earthquakes occur on our subduction zone approximately every 250 years. It has been 310 years since the last one occurred. Although we practice earthquake drills, (“duck, cover & hold”) twice each year, due to the high collapse potential of Waldport High School, our students and staff may be trapped in the school under rubble after the earthquake and not be able to escape. Since tsunami waves could arrive within minutes, emergency personnel may not be able to rescue our students and staff members from the collapsed school building or they would also be washed away in the tsunami. This is Bad, really Bad.
If this description sounds like an exaggeration to you, consider the tragic consequences in Japan where authorities believed a magnitude 9 earthquake was not possible. Like the Japan earthquake in March, authorities expect the next Cascadia earthquake to produce strong shaking that lasts several minutes…an earthquake with the power to warp the seafloor triggering a giant tsunami of the scale of the one that devastated the Sendai region of Japan. Experts also say that the ground may drop 1-2 feet or more due to subsidence caused by the earthquake. As Rob Witter, a geologist with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries describes it, “The earthquake is expected to drop the entire coastal region by several feet leading to extensive shoreline erosion, reconfiguration of bays and estuaries, and flooding of low-lying areas.” This eventuality would ruin Waldport High School.
I have been the Safety Coordinator for Lincoln County School District for 10 years. We have conducted and participated in numerous earthquake and tsunami drills, and we have produced several earthquake/tsunami training videos and publications that promote preparedness. We have written grants to stock up on emergency food, water and other supplies and we have put NOAA Alert Radios in all our schools and in over 200 staff members’ homes. We continually work closely with emergency partner agencies to improve our earthquake and tsunami readiness.
So what is the Ugly? It is difficult to say this, but if this earthquake happens when school is in session we will likely lose all 259 students and staff at Waldport High School. All the preparedness activities we conduct and all the “duck, cover, & hold” drills we practice will not change that. The “ugly” will happen unless we, the community, decide to do something about it. We CAN prevent this! We CAN save their lives. But we must take action by permanently moving these students and staff members to a new school on high ground. The school district already owns the land, we just need the funds to build a new school. I urge you to take a serious look at the bond measure to consider your part in helping to move these 259 people, members of our community, to safety. Then we can call it, The Good, the Bad, and the Heroes – that is you!
Lincoln Beach, Oregon
Editor’s Note: Because some older school bonds are being paid off over the next couple of years, the current school bond proposal will not raise property taxes. But of course if the bond fails, property taxes would thereby likely decline.
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