Some Oregon Towns Are Prepared For Earthquake, Some Aren't

Jan 28, 2015

Communities up and down the Oregon Coast have known about the threat of a tsunami for years. But some are better prepared than others. What are coastal communities doing to prepare?   

Waldport High School. Lincoln County voters passed a $63 million bond in 2011 to demolish the old Waldport High School and move it up hill. Now the 11 school buildings in the county are all located outside the tsunami zone.
Credit Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

MaryJo Kerlin, with the Lincoln County School District, stands in the car park of the old Waldport High -- just 12 feet above sea level.

MaryJo Kerlin: "As you look around, you can see there is no high school here any longer. It's been demolished. It was demolished in a learn-to-burn exercise with our local fire departments."

A short drive up hill is the new high school, complete with a cache of tsunami supplies.
But how did that happen? Why - at the height of the recession - did residents of Lincoln City, Newport, Toledo and Waldport come together to pass a $63 million bond?
Kerlin says one way was to promise a large slice of the money would be spent locally.

MaryJo Kerlin: "I have talked to contractors since then, I've run into them in the grocery story and they say: 'Thank you so much, the work the school district gave us, helped us through a very rough time.'"
Rich Belloni, director of support services for the School District, says they also timed the bond to the sunset of another bond.

Rich Belloni: "I was asked a lot of times: 'You're telling me that we will not have any new taxes, that they will not go up?' And I said: 'Yes. That's what we're promising you.' '"

Waldport also has plenty of high, flat land - well above the tsunami zone - on which to build. So now, all 11 school buildings are now out of the zone.
It's the kind of success that other towns can only dream of.

Broadway Street, Seaside. Seaside is one of Oregon's most vulnerable cities according to a 2007 paper by the US Geological Survey
Credit Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

Take Seaside. It sits on a long, level stretch of land right next to the ocean.
Seaside Superintendent, Doug Dougherty (Dockerty,) says 80 percent of residents live just 15 feet above sea level.
Scientists say buildings there need to be on land at least 70 feet above sea level to be safe.
Dougherty (Dockerty,) says they tried to pass a  bond to move their schools, but it failed.

Doug Dougherty: "We heard over and over again, 'Shouldn't the state and the federal government, shouldn't they contribute to this?' It is a huge lift for our community."
Kristian: "Are you getting any success at the state or federal level?"
Doug Dougherty: " I wish I could say I was, but at this point, no."

That's a lament that can be heard up and down the coast.
The Democratic president of Oregon's senate, Peter Courtney, says voters did approve a measure to spend up to $1 billion to retrofit essential buildings. But that was 12 years ago.  

Peter Courtney: "We've had a heck of a time trying to sell the bonds because they require the authorization of the legislature."

About $75 million has been spent so far.
Courtney says politicians have a hard time prioritizing something that only happens once every few hundred years.

Peter Courtney: "Everybody wants to do something about it, but just not now. And I think that happens in life."

The other problem is that the money can only be used to renovate existing buildings, not to demolish them and build replacements elsewhere.

The Yachats Fire Department building is 65 years old and just 20 feet above sea level. The town is looking into a bond measure to move it to higher ground.
Credit Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

What all this means is that towns up and down the coast are trying to figure things out for themselves.
Take Yachats.
Frankie Petrick is the chief of the Yachats Fire Protection District. She says their station is  65 years old, only 20 feet above sea level, and bursting at the seams.
She says they're considering a bond to rebuild up hill and they've already got their eyes on a spot. But it's right on the edge of the state's most recently identified tsunami zone.

Frankie Petrick: "Your toes will get wet, but not your ankles."

Seismologists say there's a 37 percent chance of a massive earthquake off the Oregon coast in the next 50 years.
Meanwhile the Oregon legislature is in session next week (Feb. 2nd.) Governor Kitzhaber wants $100 million for seismic projects. Senator Courtney wants to double that.

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