Oregon State Given Warning on Building in Tsunami Zone

December 29, 2014

Oregon’s state geologist urged Oregon State University not to put a marine studies building in a tsunami zone south of Newport’s Yaquina Bay Bridge – or at least build it to withstand waves as high as 43 feet.

The school, however, says siting the building along the bay poses a manageable risk and it will consider the added expense of a tsunami-resistant structure.

The marine studies initiative is backed by an anonymous $20 million donor. Plans call for a $50 million, 100,000-square-foot building with easy access to seawater.

It would be an expansion of the Hatfield Marine Science Center, part of a cluster of labs on the bay. Tsunami researchers would be among the occupants of the new building.

Vicki McConnell, head of the state geology agency, said the designated capacity of 500 people pushes the state limit established in 1999 for a tsunami inundation zone.

“If designed for 501 or more occupants, this building would not be allowed under Oregon Revised Statutes.” McConnell wrote to Oregon State President Ed Ray.

Ray responded by writing that fewer than 300 people will actually work and study in the building, and students will live on higher ground.

“This puts the students well out of the tsunami zone for the better part of their 24-hour day,” Ray wrote, “and especially during the night when an event would be the most disorienting.”

Bob Cowen, Hatfield Marine Science Center director, called it a serious risk.

“But at any one time it’s still a moderately low-probability event, and with proper tsunami evacuation plans, we can survive it and deal with it,” he said.

University officials said buying land on higher ground and pumping seawater uphill for studies would be too expensive, but they were considering the option of building unoccupied “blow-through” bottom stories that allow waves to pass through the structure without destroying it.

McConnell said in an interview she liked that idea as the best option short of building on higher ground.

“We’re not closing the coast for business; you can’t do that,” she said. “But building smarter and to the state of the art would be one approach.”

The Legislature is expected to consider a request to issue $25 million in bonds to finance the building.

If an earthquake struck on a summer day, thousands of people would need to evacuate Newport’s South Beach area in a hurry. If an earthquake struck near the coast, a tsunami could hit shore in 15 to 30 minutes.

The Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport often attracts more than 3,000 visitors a day in summer. The Hatfield visitor center draws several hundred at any given time. About 380 people work and study at the existing Hatfield campus, with more on ship docks and a marina.

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