ASTORIA, Ore. - The massive earthquake that rocked Chile this weekend triggered tsunami warnings up and down the West Coast of the United States and though wave heights only increased a foot or two above tide level, it could be much different next time.

And, says one expert, we're still not ready.

Patrick Corcoran, an Oregon State University education and outreach specialist, has been working with coastal communities for several years, helping them prepare for the predicted catastrophic earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone. He said West Coast residents shouldn't be lulled into a false sense of security because the Chilean quake didn't directly affect the Pacific Northwest.

"We should look instead to the damage in Chile, because that is what could happen here," said Corcoran, who coordinates the Coastal Storms Program for OSU-based Oregon Sea Grant. "With these distant earthquakes, the Northwest receives no infrastructure damage and hours of warning for potential tsunamis. The same earthquake centered a few miles off our own coast could be devastating."

During the last 10,000 years, there have been nearly two dozen earthquakes of magnitude 8.5 or higher off the Northwest coast, scientists say, and the threat from a major event and subsequent tsunami is very real - and probably overdue. During the last several years, earthquakes and/or tsunamis have struck the Indian Ocean, Haiti and now Chile - providing a grim reminder of what could happen here.

Corcoran says the impact of these huge events is systemic, with potential destruction of roads, bridges, and airports hampering rescue efforts.

"Unfortunately," he said, "the response is not systemic. Too many people rely on the fire department to do everything. And in a disaster of huge magnitude, there won't be enough help to go around."

That is why Corcoran has been working with communities and families on how to prepare for a future earthquake and tsunami. The first step, he said, is to have an evacuation plan and know where a safe location is to gather.

"Many coastal communities have developed evacuation routes and strategies, so there has been some progress in recent years," Corcoran said. "But I'm not sure we're to the point where communities could take care of a few thousand residents who have been displaced from their houses - especially if outside emergency responders couldn't help.

"If we have a similar 8.8 magnitude earthquake, we have to consider the possibility that Highway 101 will be impassable, airports won't be functioning, and emergency crews in Portland and the Willamette Valley will be facing their own set of problems," he added. "Communities and individuals need to be ready to help themselves."

How should families prepare? Corcoran suggests three initial steps:

  • Identify inundation zones in your community, so you know where high water will hit, as well as the "safe" zones where you need to get to;
  • Develop a communication plan for your family - and even friends and neighbors - that includes agreement on local meeting place, and a distant relative or friend you can call if you get separated;
  • Educate children about what to do in an earthquake and tsunami, especially if they are away from home. Know where your children are taken in an earthquake during school hours.

"Disaster kits may be helpful, but I'd suggest learning first aid and CPR," Corcoran said. "Knowing how to use a T-shirt to make a bandage is more useful than having an emergency bag you don't know what to do with - or is under the rubble that used to be your garage. And simply buying an emergency kit can lead to complacency and a feeling that you have things covered when you do not."

Communities should consider how to shelter, feed and provide water and sanitation facilities for residents, as well as tourists and travelers who may be visiting the coast when a potential disaster may strike.

"We may have as little as 15 minutes warning for a potential tsunami," Corcoran pointed out, "and the damage from an earthquake could be immediate. We all need to be prepared to help ourselves."

More information on tsunami preparedness is available at:

Click photos to see a full-size version. Right click and save image to download.


Patrick Corcoran, 503-325-8573