It’s good that the city of Long Beach acknowledged reality and stepped away from a flawed plan to build what amounted to a small hill for tsunami evacuation. At a cost of $4 million and a height of 32 feet, the city’s concrete berm was too expensive and too short.
It would have been even better if Long Beach had changed course in March 2016, when Dr. Christopher Sabine, director of NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratories in Seattle, told local officials a Cascadia Subduction Zone quake is predicted to produce an initial tsunami up to 58 feet tall. U.S. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, attended the meeting where Sabine spoke and immediately drew a parallel with Japan, where defense structures were under-engineered and proved futile against a tsunami in March 2011, resulting in the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
A case can be made for not allowing pursuit of a perfect answer get in the way of preparations that might save lives in something less than a full-scale, worst-case disaster. However, it would be bad to spend millions on a structure that provides a false sense of security and turns into a death trap.
Pacific Northwest coastal residents shouldn’t throw up our hands in despair and do nothing.
• Within a couple of decades, most local schools can and should be either relocated to high ground — as Seaside is doing — or built strong enough and tall enough to provide vertical evacuation for everyone within a 15-minute running radius. This is essentially what has been done in Westport, Washington.
• Evacuation paths to high ground might be feasible in most coastal communities, if constructed to survive the violent earthquake that will trigger a tsunami. And in the meantime, such paths would be valuable recreational assets.
• Washington’s Quileute Tribe is relocating its main village to a safer place. Though obviously impractical in the short term for the much more densely coastal towns in the vicinity of the Columbia River, it may be many decades before the next mega-tsunami strikes. A deliberate effort to locate new subdivisions on safer ground — like the one already platted at Ilwaco’s Discovery Heights — can greatly mitigate loss of life.
Finally, it bears remembering that most people survive tsunamis. Put to the test, they race for safe ground, scramble up trees or manage to ride debris to safety. Smart planning, perhaps far beyond anything mentioned here, can maximize these chances.