Oregon State University

Confluence: Equal Opportunity Destroyers?

Lori Cramer

Winter 2012 | Vol. 1, Issue 1

Who is Most Affected by Tsunamis?

Sociologist Lori Cramer discovers big differences in susceptibility

By Nathan Gilles

We tend to think of natural disasters as equal-opportunity destroyers, affecting rich and poor alike.

But Oregon Sea Grant researcher Lori Cramer, a sociologist at Oregon State University, says natural disasters, instead of affecting everyone equally, will often exacerbate preexisting inequalities. And, says Cramer, for poor and vulnerable groups on the Oregon coast, the Japanese tsunami on March 11, 2011, could be their wake-up call.

"There is a lot of good work going on around the science of tsunamis, but less so on the social dimensions related to tsunamis," says Cramer. Her research is changing that. Recently, Cramer completed a series of interviews on the Oregon coast that found some populations could be more susceptible to the effects of a large near-shore tsunami than others. By interviewing people that work with groups Cramer considers vulnerable - including children, the disabled, the elderly, the homeless, and Spanish speakers - Cramer determined that these groups could be more adversely affected by a powerful tsunami than other, less-vulnerable ones.

There is an urgency surrounding Cramer's research and what it suggests about vulnerable populations on Oregon's coast because, according to the most recent science, it's just a matter of time before a tsunami strikes the region.

Some scientists believe that, because the Pacific Northwest had its most recent Giant magnitude 9+ earthquake in 1700, the region is well overdue for a large earthquake and tsunami. However, as Cramer found out, many of Oregon's coastal communities are unprepared for such an event. At no time was this more apparent than on March 11 last year, when a tsunami, caused by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Japan, hit the Pacific Northwest.

When the tsunami that destroyed much of the Japanese east coast reached the United States' west coast 10 hours later, it had lost most of its energy. Boats were damaged in some west coast harbors, but the tsunami was hardly the disaster it was in Japan. However, the way individuals and groups on the U.S. west coast responded to this rather tame distant tsunami showed just how unprepared they are for a large, nearshore tsunami caused by a powerful local earthquake.

In the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami, Cramer traveled to more than 30 facilities, from homeless shelters to nursing homes, in Seaside, Newport, and Brookings. Interviewing facility managers as well as employees, she discovered myriad responses to the March 11, 2011, tsunami.

When disaster strikes, who gets saved?

Lori Cramer examines tsunami mapAt one assisted-living home Cramer visited, the researcher noted that when the tsunami sirens went off, members of the facility's staff seriously considered leaving work to go home and evacuate their families. At a group home that works with the disabled, the staff voiced concern that because their building was in a tsunami inundation zone, the 15 minutes expected for a tsunami to arrive after a major local earthquake would not be enough time to evacuate the building's residents to the nearest high ground. Cramer says responses like these suggest that the difficult conversations about what to do when a major tsunami occurs might not be happening at agencies that aid vulnerable populations.

"What are staff members' obligations to their clients versus their families and friends?" asks Cramer. These are the kind of questions that need to be answered, she says.

Another issue that emerged from her interviews, according to Cramer, is that a number of facilities she visited lacked triage training, or the process of assigning and assessing emergency medical treatment based on need. This could mean some patients might get preferential treatment based on whether they were liked by the staff, rather than on their level of need. "And that's the problem," says Cramer. "It's who is most likely to survive, not who do you like the most."

Cramer also discovered in her interviews that there was a large disparity in how English-speaking and Spanish-speaking residents on the coast received and responded to information about the March 11 tsunami. English-speaking populations, says Cramer, relied more on official media outlets for their information. On the other hand, Spanish-speaking populations tended to rely on informal communication via cell phones and texting. Several groups of Spanish speakers - totaling over 100 individuals, according to one estimate Cramer received - even traveled to the foothills because they were under the impression that they were in an inundation zone (which they were not) and that the distant tsunami would inundate the lowlands (which it did not). Cramer says that while this group communicated well amongst themselves, the information they received from outside sources about what to do when a tsunami strikes was inaccurate and misled them.. Cramer says that in the future she hopes emergency managers will be able to locate individuals who are members of these networks and will be able to relay accurate messages about tsunamis to Oregon's Spanish-speaking population.

Cramer's interest in the effect of tsunamis on vulnerable populations began before the Japanese earthquake, but within minutes of hearing about Japan's tragedy the sociologist was on the phone with Oregon Sea Grant, requesting funds to gather some preliminary information about vulnerable populations on Oregon's coast. OSG Director Stephen Brandt, approved funds for her research within hours of the phone call.

The following week, Cramer met with Patrick Corcoran, Oregon Sea Grant Extension specialist. Specializing in coastal hazards, including tsunamis, Corcoran was able to help Cramer locate subjects for her study. He also helped her train two graduate students who assisted in her research. A little over two weeks after Cramer's initial proposal, she and her graduate students were on the coast conducting interviews. "Since my research questions were already formed," says Cramer, "I was able to put together a research group in a matter of hours because I was already looking at this issue."

An environmental sociologist, Cramer has examined issues ranging from how aging populations experience outdoor recreation to how fishing communities have adapted to natural and manmade changes in their environments. Examining vulnerable populations and tsunamis might seem like a departure from her other work, but Cramer sees the similarities. "It is really about how people and communities are able to adapt to environmental changes," says Cramer, "and what resources they have that they can capitalize on."

Different populations, different survival strategies

In a conversation with an employee at a facility that works with low-income families and the homeless, Cramer discovered that the survival strategies recommended for higher-income populations don't work for low-income populations. One such strategy suggested by emergency managers is to have three to five days' worth of meals available in one's house to weather through the rough times.

Cramer says this is unrealistic for low-income populations. "This kind of planning just doesn't make sense when these people are struggling to put food on their tables each day."

As one of her interviewees put it, for these populations, "every day is an emergency and a struggle to survive."

But, says Cramer, vulnerable communities often have skills as well as access to resources that other populations might not have. For example, many homeless individuals and families know where to find fresh water and kindling in the forest, along with other survival skills, Cramer says.

While she hopes her research will help organizations that aid vulnerable populations better prepare for a local tsunami, Cramer also thinks her research will point to ways in which marginalized populations can educate the average resident about survival skills in an emergency situation. "These are resourceful people," says Cramer. "What are some of their survival strategies that they know from surviving day to day? And what can we learn from them?"

Editor's note: Spanish speakers can download a free brochure, "Tsunami! Como sobrevivir en la costa de Oregon" (know how to survive on the Oregon coast)  the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries,which produced it in association with Oregon Emergency Management and Oregon Sea Grant.

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