CANNON BEACH, Ore. - It would cost twice as much and there's no precedent anywhere in the United States for how to fund such a structure. Everyone agrees it would save lives. There's not much doubt about that. And in light of the tragedy unfolding in Japan, it seems to make perfect sense.
It would be a new city hall, a very rugged building on concrete stilts. But it still hasn't been built.
This debate and quandary raises awkward questions, such as how many people would die in a tsunami, how much it would cost to prevent that, what approaches would work best and who should pay for them. The debate centers on what would be the nation's first structure designed to survive a tsunami and serve as a refuge people could run to on short notice, to get above the deadly waves.
Some would be local residents in Cannon Beach, Ore. Many others saved might be tourists from all over the nation who flock to its scenic beauty - in the recent Chilean earthquake and tsunami many of those who died were tourists.
And researchers at Oregon State University say they hope the events now taking place across the Pacific Ocean will raise new awareness about these issues and help point the way to a solution.
"We've been struggling with this for several years now," said Harry Yeh, a professor of coastal engineering at OSU, international expert on tsunamis and one of the people helping community leaders in Cannon Beach to make progress toward this new building. It's a concept that, once created, might form a model for many more such structures from Northern California to British Columbia.
OSU engineers have been involved in the development of the structure, and are now finishing up an evacuation plan that would help Cannon Beach community leaders sort through the variables and decide what approach is best. They have also tested models of the proposed structure in the Tsunami Wave Basin at the Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, a sophisticated facility supported by the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation of the National Science Foundation.
"In the last few days, many people survived in Japan by taking refuge in reinforced concrete buildings that did not collapse in the earthquake or tsunami," Yeh said. "There are hardly any buildings like that anywhere on the coast of Oregon or Washington.
"A building like this will cost more, but we know it will work," Yeh said. "These are value judgments that have to be made about how to build structures and why we are doing it. This is an issue that affects not just Cannon Beach but much of the West Coast of the United States and Canada, and many lives are at stake."
Due to the proximity of the Cascadia Subduction Zone - in geologic terms, a near identical twin to the subduction fault that caused the earthquake and tsunami in Japan - Cannon Beach and many other coastal cities face a very similar disaster in their future.
"It's been 311 years since the last earthquake on the Cascadia Subduction Zone in 1700," said Jay Raskin, a former mayor of Cannon Beach, architect and now a community leader advocating for both a "vertical evacuation" structure such as the new city hall and also improved bridges that would aid escape.
"The researchers at OSU tell us that based on its recurrence interval, 85 percent of the earthquakes on this subduction zone would have already happened by now," Raskin said. "An analogy I've heard is that this is about like being nine months pregnant. This event is going to happen pretty soon."
But as years of debate, community meetings and discussion have made clear, the way forward is anything but clear, Raskin said. This small town that runs for a few miles clinging to the Pacific Ocean coastline needs a new city hall, but one that could survive an earthquake and tsunami will cost twice as much, about $3-4 million instead of $1-2 million.
That's not the only complication. Many people also point out that a bridge over local Ecola Creek, which would be a key to people running to higher ground, would probably be destroyed in the earthquake, and it should be replaced too.
They're probably right. The bridge was actually built in 1964 - when a great earthquake on a subduction zone in Alaska sent a tsunami sweeping south that destroyed the old bridge over Ecola Creek.
"Personally, I believe we need both the vertical evacuation structure and a new automobile or pedestrian bridge for escape," Raskin said.
Community leaders in Cannon Beach would like to develop some combination of local, state and federal funding. But no federal agencies are set up to support a project such as this.
"As a country, we have the resources and the expertise, but so far not the motivation to properly prepare," Raskin said. "I would hope that what's happening now in Japan might help change that."
"It's tough to be trying to build the first tsunami-resistant structure in the nation," he said. "It is reasonable for government to work to save lives before disasters such as a great earthquake or tsunami occur, but these are questions that tend to be put off until it is too late."
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Harry Yeh, 541-737-8057