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Confluence: Elk Antlers Over the Bed
Winter 2012 | Vol. 1, Issue 1
Pat Corcoran Brings Tsunami Readiness Home
by Nathan Gilles
In a sunlit meeting room in the Astoria Holiday Inn, Patrick Corcoran is about to lay some bad news on eight members of the Oregon Trawl Commission.
This is the quarterly board meeting of the fishermen-funded and -run commission, organized under Oregon's Department of Agriculture. The members of the commission represent the state's fishing industry elite. These businessmen have millions of dollars invested in boats and processing facilities, and Corcoran is about to tell them that all this wealth, representing years - in some cases generations, of hard work - could disappear in an instant, washed out to sea or destroyed in harbor by a massive wave the likes of which no one has seen in the Pacific Northwest in over 300 years.
Corcoran, an Oregon Sea Grant Extension specialist, specializes in coastal hazards: storms, coastal erosion, and tsunamis. His talk to the board about tsunamis isn't the first time he has handed out this particular brand of bad news. Over the years he has developed a unique style that presents scientific facts along with psychology and humor, a distinctive combination that has made him adept at giving people a diagnosis they don't want to hear. Having been a facilitator for years, he is also a master of group dynamics.
For Corcoran, giving his talks isn't only a job. It's a vocation. The outgoing specialist enjoys interacting with groups. Just two days earlier, Corcoran returned from Burning Man, the weeklong art festival held in the Nevada desert. Rather than being tired from the celebrations, he is still visibly energized from the event. He will need this energy when he tells the commission the bad news. A 9.0 magnitude earthquake, followed by a tsunami similar to the one that devastated Japan, will one day strike Oregon's coast, perhaps in the lifetimes of those in the room. But his real message isn't catastrophe. It's resilience.
Japanese tragedy holds lessons for Northwest
The March 11, 2011 tsunami that laid waste to Japan's east coast is still fresh in the minds of Oregon Trawl Commission members. The Commission's director, Brad Pettinger, has already mentioned Sendai, the Japanese city that experienced some of the worst effects from the recent tsunami. Also fresh in their minds are those images: black waves crashing over a barrier in Miyako, Japan; lowland buildings crumbling under massive 30-foot-tall waves; people drowning in their cars. Corcoran tells the Commission it can and will happen here.
"When the earth shakes," says Corcoran, "get the hell out of Dodge." For people on the Oregon coast the shaking earth is a warning that means they have 15 to 30 minutes to get 50 feet or higher, because a tsunami is going to inundate the coast, damaging or destroying businesses and homes and potentially killing tens of thousands. "It means," says Corcoran, "we will get what Japan got." And the worst of it is, says Corcoran, is that unlike Japan - which despite the destruction was actually very prepared for just this kind of event - Oregon's coastal residents are woefully unprepared for a massive tsunami. One reason, he says, is that a lot of people just don't know large earthquakes and tsunamis happen here.
Small Oregon tsunami hints of future devastation
Corcoran asks the fishermen in the room about their experiences with the March 11, 2011, tsunami. Many have their stories. Rex Leech tells how he scrambled to get his boat out to sea in the early morning hours because he feared it would be damaged if he left it in the harbor. Pettinger says it was chaotic when the tsunami sirens went off in his southern Oregon city of Brookings. That town later saw several boats washed out to sea by the tsunami, while several more sank in the harbor. Similar destruction was reported in Crescent City, California, where much of the town's harbor was damaged. "But," says Pettinger, "I'll take Crescent City over Sendai any day."
In Japanese cities such as Sendai, the tsunami was devastating. But 10 hours later, when it finally reached the United States' west coast, the wave had lost most of its intensity. While it caused damage to boats and harbors on the U.S. coast - and did even carry some people out to sea, one of whom later died - the Japanese tsunami was more of a hassle than a hazard. For the Pacific Northwest, the March 11 tsunami was a distant event; the earthquake happened thousands of miles away. This distinction between a local and distant event is a critical one, Corcoran tells the group.
"The distant event is nothing to sweat," says Corcoran. "If your boat gets banged up in the harbor, that's what you have insurance for." The problem, he says, is that not only do most people not understand the difference between distant and local events, but Oregon's coast, while it is prepared for the less-severe distant event, is not prepared for a local tsunami.