Experts report that the odds are 1-3 that a devastating earthquake will hit the Northwest in the next 50 years. In the massive earthquake that hit Sumatra and the Indian Ocean in 2004, more than 200,000 people died, most of them from the resulting tsunami. Plans are being made on the coast of the Pacific Northwest to prevent a similar catastrophe. Oregon State University reports that it is assisting the town of Cannon Beach to build a new city hall that will withstand the force of a tsunami — and perhaps save thousands of lives in the process.

Scientists say the Cascadian zone off the Pacific Northwest coast is capable of producing an earthquake of magnitude 9 or higher, similar to what happened in the Indian Ocean in 2004. Experts theorize that in a similar situation, a vertical evacuation into an extremely sturdy building would be the only way to save lives. And so, experts from Oregon State University (OSU) and the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industry are working with the people of Cannon Beach to build a city hall that will house the public business — and the public, should the Pacific decide to make an appearance.

A conceptual design for the 9,800-square-foot structure has been completed. Structures like this have been built in Japan, and none have been put to the test. But researchers at OSU are working on a model in their Tsunami Wave Basin.

Patrick Corcoran is an OSU Sea Grant Extension hazards outreach specialist. As he told reporters, tsunamis are “arguably the greatest recurring natural hazard in the lower 48 states. Our cities are not engineered to deal with it, and our residents are not prepared for it. We need evacuation routes, assembly sites, public education and outreach. And in some places, we need vertical evacuation structures.” 

Until recently, experts did not believe the Cascadian zone was capable of producing a killer earthquake, and structures were built with abandon. But now scientists estimate that water could rise up to 15 feet on the coast. Worse, residents would only have about 15 minutes to reach higher ground. Cannon Beach is home to about 1,700 permanent residents and thousands of visitors.

The hope is that Cannon Beach’s new city hall will pave the way for more structures able to withstand a tsunami. According to Dan Cox, a professor of coastal and ocean engineering at OSU, “There’s a lot we still need to learn about the impact of forces from waves, cars, collapsed buildings and other debris, and just how strong a building must be to resist that. But our tests should help add a higher degree of confidence in this design.” 

The earthquake may be coming, but it seems Cannon Beach will be prepared.

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