Opinion: Oregon legislature turns its back on tsunamis

By Chris Goldfinger, Ph.D., Professor, Oregon State University (@goldfinger300)


While Japan is moving entire towns out of the tsunami zone in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku disaster, Oregon is doing the opposite, trading public safety for developer profits.


Citation: Chris Goldfinger, (2019), Oregon legislature turns its back on tsunamis, Temblor, http://doi.org/10.32858/temblor.032


Last week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed into law HB 3309. She did not support it, but there were not enough votes to sustain a veto. The bill was the latest effort by Oregon legislators to roll back common sense in the tsunami zone. The science is solid, so this isn’t denial; this is about profits.

When scientists first started getting through to officials that there was a significant tsunami risk, there was pushback to putting up tsunami signs, and resistance to informing visitors about the issue. As the awareness has increased, so has the resistance.

Building a school in the tsunami zone

Two years ago, the Oregon Legislature gave Oregon State University (OSU) $20 million in matching funds to build a school in a tsunami zone. And as ridiculous as that sounds, the Coastal Caucus (a bicameral, bipartisan group of legislators whose districts include parts of the coast) and OSU together concocted absurd arguments to build this “demonstration project” to show how to build in a tsunami zone. Thus they created a risk that did not exist before. Good alternatives existed, but they were rejected. Those who wanted the money and development won’t be there when the big one comes; students will be the test pilots. The developers worked every loophole and enlisted local city officials to support it and put the building in a very low “risk category” in building code parlance, the classification that determines the level of building code restrictions that may apply to a given project. The OSU marine studies building in Newport, Ore., replete with a tsunami evacuation zone on its roof, is set to open in late 2019.


The OSU Marine Science building under construction, April 2019. It’s on a sandbar at sea level in Newport, Ore., and can be overtopped by the largest of the modeled tsunamis, as well as battered by the NOAA ships docked just to the left out of the frame. It’s not often you can take the “after” picture ahead of time, but this is what it may look like after being destroyed by the next tsunami. Credit: Chris Goldfinger.
The OSU Marine Science building under construction, April 2019. It’s on a sandbar at sea level in Newport, Ore., and can be overtopped by the largest of the modeled tsunamis, as well as battered by the NOAA ships docked just to the left out of the frame. It’s not often you can take the “after” picture ahead of time, but this is what it may look like after being destroyed by the next tsunami. Credit: Chris Goldfinger.


Undermining DOGAMI, an excellent state agency

Last week, the Oregon Legislature took the next step, attempting to roll back basic protections written into Oregon law in 1995 as SB 379. This bill established a tsunami inundation line, and required approval of DOGAMI (the state geologic survey) to build a variety of significant structures in the tsunami zone.

The 1995 law was old, and the tsunami line it contained was a good start, but outdated. The law was also full of loopholes that made it easy to grant exceptions for almost any reason. The provisions of the law prohibited building critical facilities in the tsunami zone, including schools, hospitals, fire and police and related structures. DOGAMI was put in charge and developers had to consult with them about such projects.

However, consultations were merely a façade. “Sure, they bring in the plans for a consultation. I tell them they’re crazy, and they have met the requirement for consultation,” then they would go ahead, a DOGAMI staff member related. So DOGAMI staff members’ hands were tied.

Numerous other loopholes effectively gave free reign to developers, cities and counties to do as they pleased with little restriction. Thankfully, for the most part, these loopholes were not used, but one hospital was built in the tsunami zone in Gold Beach, and now, the aforementioned OSU building.  

New science leads to better models

In recent years, DOGAMI produced tsunami inundation models that are much more advanced than the original SB 379 line. In fact, these models have set the gold standard for such work.

These semi-probabilistic models started by developing earthquake sources that were consistent with the geology of Cascadia, the GPS models of plate locking, the extensive paleoseismic and paleogeodetic evidence of past quakes, and critically, tsunami run-up evidence that showed how far inland past tsunamis had reached. DOGAMI scientists did fieldwork to investigate and expand the tsunami evidence, created paleo-topographic surfaces to evaluate tsunami run-up models approximating the AD 1700 M~9 Cascadia megathrust earthquake.

They then ran hundreds of tsunami models using the most advanced hydrodynamic codes until a good match for the geological and geophysical evidence was found. These models were peer-reviewed and published in scientific journals, then published as the official State of Oregon inundation models.

This was all done on a mostly volunteer basis by international experts in each of the subdisciplines, and led by George Priest of DOGAMI, so a huge budget was never needed. The science was first class. But there was a hitch. In Oregon, the science was ignored by the state legislators, even while neighboring states and Canada wished they had such models.

No good science goes unpunished

The new tsunami inundation lines put more land in the tsunami zone, which was unpopular with developers. So, the legislators never adopted these high-end models into law. Instead, they complained about DOGAMI and argued that the old tsunami line was hurting tourism and inhibiting coastal development. Legislators repeatedly cut DOGAMI staff and budgets, and are now attempting to abolish the agency altogether. 

So how did a small group of legislators garner enough support to abolish the prohibitions in the building of certain structures in the tsunami zone? This couldn’t have happened without very strong support, otherwise Gov. Brown could have simply vetoed it. It appears that many were erroneously convinced that what they abolished was about to be replaced with something better. 

Replacing vetted science with questionable work

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) periodically revises building codes, and the newest revision, ASCE 7-16, is in the process of being adopted by Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii. For the first time, ASCE now includes a chapter on construction standards in tsunami zones. These are structural standards, and recommendations that consider the force of tsunami waves, wave and current scouring around buildings and other details. Since these states have many towns and cities located in the tsunami zones, this is good. But to lay out who must comply, tsunami models were needed to show what areas would be subject to the new codes.

For four of the five states, there were no existing comprehensive tsunami models, and so this is a boon for these states—a starting point that can be improved on in the future.

ASCE models: Simplistic, no peer review, no publication

Oregon, however, already had high-end tsunami models. By comparison, the ASCE models are simplistic, a first cut at best, that failed to incorporate the geologic, geophysical or geodetic data. They did not attempt to “balance” the slip along the subduction zone so it made sense in terms of the total budget of motion between the two colliding plates, failed to use the latest geologic evidence, and did not test the models against the geologic evidence of tsunami run-up. The ASCE models and sources were never peer reviewed in any serious way nor published. In fact, it remains pretty hard to ferret out exactly what ASCE did, as there is no documentation to speak of. At a meeting where the results were presented to Oregon specialists including me, they were heavily criticized. But the process was already complete, and our comments were not incorporated.

So in the end, Oregon was sold this package to replace the 1995 law, and also to cut DOGAMI out of the picture. Legislators wanted to shoot the messenger, as so often is the case. Now Oregon will have two sets of tsunami lines, one in the new building codes, and one from DOGAMI. They are not the same, and don’t serve the same purpose. Nonetheless, the DOGAMI lines are defensible, published and available to all, while the ASCE lines are not in the same league. But many in the Oregon legislature became convinced that they were improving things, while others pushed the pro-development agenda, and others appeared to be confused about exactly what they were signing due to the press of other business. 

Worse than the tsunami models is that now there is no statewide uniform guidance or law to govern what can be built in a tsunami zone. Decisions will be made by local building inspectors who decide which risk category a project belongs in, and these people, in my honest opinion, are easily influenced by politics. While a given city is free to go above and beyond the codes and place things in safe locations, it will also be free to do dangerous things if the local politicians push it. To some extent this was always true, and fixing that was a problem a state task force was working on when short-circuited by the legislative attack on DOGAMI.   

A stealth war on science

It gets worse. The bill that passed last week was done in stealth mode, under the radar, when all news was focused on a climate and carbon tax debate. It was attached to another bill very late in the session, and had no real discussion, hearings or debate. Even if some of the supporters were well intentioned, some are conflicted with strong pro-development agendas. As Rep. David Gomberg, a Democrat who represents the Central Coast, stated many times, tsunami protections were costing people money (a dubious claim at best), thus the attacks on the existing law and on DOGAMI.

In the end, the result may well be measured in lives lost for the simple cause of profits for developers on the coast.