Tsunami Evacuation Route

Tsunami Evacuation Route

Eve Epstein/OPB

The Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries officially has the power to regulate construction in a tsunami zone. But in practice, developers and cities only have to consult with the state - they don’t have to actually take any advice.

So, following the construction of a new hospital in the tsunami zone, a bill is under consideration to give DOGAMI some enforcement authority. OPB Reporter Kristian Foden-Vencil attended DOGAMI’s general meeting to learn more, then joined All Things Considered Host Kate Davidson in the studio to discuss the situation.

Q&A on Senate Bill 778

Kate Davidson: So Senate Bill 778 is up for a hearing in Salem Tuesday. What exactly would it do?

Kristian Foden-Vencil: In essence, it would give DOGAMI the power to require mitigation measures to buildings, with the aim of reducing tsunami risks to the public. So that might mean something like building a building up, so people could evacuate to higher floors. The bill would also give DOGAMI the power to block development if it decides a building simply can’t be made safe.

What’s interesting, is that while the agency already enforces mining laws, the board seems pretty nervous about getting involved in this kind of enforcement. Here’s Ian Madin, the agency’s interim director, telling the governing board about the bill.

Ian Madin: This is a big change and it has very significant impact on the department, particularly cost wise. We will have to write a whole bunch of new rules, defining how this process works. We will have to have some sort of a contested case and appeals process for it. Because I can guarantee that virtually every decision we make will be appealed by somebody. And we can anticipate significant amounts of controversy and effort required on the department’s part and the boards part to try to implement this.

Foden-Vencil: Just quickly, the agency isn’t sure just how often they’d need to rule on new developments. The current consultation process has only been used seven times in the last 20 years. And DOGAMI hasn’t tracked what happened in those cases.

Davidson: Well, is DOGAMI supportive of the bill?

Foden-Vencil: When I talked to board members, they seemed pretty nervous about the idea. Not only would they have to hire attorneys and development staff to run the new process, they’d also need technical staff - like structural engineers - who could sign off on new tsunami-safe buildings. Those are relatively rare and expensive skills. So, the agency isn’t taking a stand on this bill. But at the hearing tomorrow (Tuesday) staff are expected to talk about the cost of the new enforcement efforts

Davidson: Can you give people an idea of how many people or buildings might be involved with a change like this?

Foden-Vencil: Good question, and it gets a little involved, but stick with me. So back in 1995, when Oregonians were just waking up to the fact that the coast gets inundated every 300 to 400 years, the state drew up a tsunami zone. It’s literally a line drawn on plastic sheets that fold down over a series of maps of the coast. You can see them in DOGAMI’s library in downtown Portland.

Anyway over the last 20 years, the agency has done a lot more science to figure out how big a tsunami along the coast might be. And it’s come up with five new tsunami lines: Small, Medium, Large, Extra Large and Extra Extra Large — showing where tsunamis of those various sizes might hit.

A panel recently recommended DOGAMI adopt the ‘Large” line, but the agency has yet to actually do that. The main reason being that instead of having about 20,000 structures in the tsunami zone, the new line puts about 28,000 structures in it.

Davidson: So if I understand this right, this bill would take the powers to regulate development out of the hands of local cities and counties, and hand it over to the state — in the form of DOGAMI? How do those jurisdictions feel about it?

Foden-Vencil: Well it’s a big concern for them. One of the problems of the last 20 years has been that local planning departments have been reluctant to force their own cities to move key infrastructure out of the tsunami zone.

But Mark Nystrom, the policy manager for the Association of Oregon Counties, told me they haven’t take a formal position on the bill yet, but they are concerned. He says they haven’t had a chance yet to gather opinions from county commissioners and planning directors up and down the coast, but they’re working on it.

Davidson: Thank you.