Oregon leaders know there’s a one in three chance of a massive earthquake and tsunami over the next 50 years.
Those are high odds. And they’re the reason why some people are frustrated Oregon State University plans to build a $50 million dollar research center smack in the middle of the tsunami zone.
In Newport’s harbor, moored next to all the fishing boats, lies the Newport Belle.
It’s an old stern-wheeler that’s been turned into a bed and breakfast by owner, Michael Wilkinson.
So what would he do if there was a Cascade subduction zone earthquake, “Grab the dog and run like hell,” said Wilkinson.
That’s because he’ll have maybe 20 minutes before a tsunami comes rolling in. And what would happen to his stern-wheeler?
“It would be lifted up across the parking lot and probably wind up on top of the Hatfield Marine Science Center.”
That’s where Oregon State wants to build its new ocean research building.
Scientists estimates a tsunami 25-feet high could sweep through the area at close to 30 miles an hour.
“We can engineer for that,” said Scott Ashford, Dean of the College of Engineering at OSU.
“And I think if you’re going to build in the inundation zone, you approach it with your eyes open.”
Ashford says the new research building could be built so the walls blow out when water washes through. And he says engineers could drill pilings down 100 feet or more into the sand to deal with earthquake liquefaction.
That way, people could take cover on the roof and, depending on the size the tsunami, the building might or might not be functional afterwards.
OPB filed a Freedom Of Information Act request to get a report commissioned by OSU on alternative locations for the new building.
It showed a site on a nearby hill would be 6 or 7 percent cheaper. Student housing will be built up there.
So why not put the research center there as well?
“The experiential education and research that we do here and that our students will be doing, will put them down here most of the time anyway,” said Bob Cowen, director of the Hatfield Marine Science Center.
“So even if we were to build the building somewhere else, it would have not a large impact on the amount of time they spent in this location.”
Cowen says there’s already critical mass of ocean scientists down by the harbor, including those with NOAA, the EPA, the Hatfield Marine Science Center and the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
The level of frustration among scientists who study earthquakes and tsunamis is high.
“The Oregon Resiliency Plan was basically ignored,” said Jay Wilson, the chairman of the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission.
He’s frustrated that OSU appears to be ignoring the commission’s work, especially considering the tsunami damage in Japan in 2011. “Inside the torrent of the tsunami zone, with potential flaming debris and ships … I think trying to avoid that exposure for people is a really strong consideration,” said Wilson.
Chris Goldfinger, a professor of geology at OSU, says the new building would be illegal in countries like Indonesia and Japan, which have longer histories of dealing with the aftermath of tsunamis.
Even Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney is frustrated with OSU. “I don’t know why they’re doing this. It’s just typical for human beings to do this. Somewhere along the line they think, ‘Human nature is superior to Mother Nature,’ so here we go,” he said.
Like the majority of the legislature, Courtney voted for a budget that included half the money for the new OSU building.
Back inside the stern-wheeler, Michael Wilkinson says if the earthquake doesn’t get him, the tsunami likely will. And if he lived uphill to get away from that, he’d likely be nailed by a landslide, shaken loose by the earthquake.
“I think we all know that threat is here and yet we choose to live our lives here at this point. Not a willful ignorance. But willing to take the chance, and the quality of life is good,” said Wilkinson.
Construction of the new center is expected to start next year.