Eathquake musings

A lot of opinions, how about some facts regarding the OSU building in the tsunami zone?

with 2 comments

As many people know, OSU has committed to building a new school building in the tsunami zone, on a sandbar just barely above sea level at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.  Lets take a brief tour of the facts.

The Sandbar Site:  The site is a sandbar that was not mapped as land until the 1930’s, when some fill was added to make a causeway to the ferry slip prior to construction of the Yaquina Bay bridge.  It has 90-124 ft. of liquefiable sand overlying weathered mudstone.

The Marine Science Center:  On top of about 2m of fill, a collection of buildings have been constructed over the past 50 years, mostly with no earthquake standards. These buildings house EPA, ODFW, NOAA USFW and OSU, and the visitor center.   ~ 300 people work there today, all of which are vulnerable to both earthquakes and tsunami.  This plan will add 300 more.

The Earthquake/Tsunami Risk: Although much of the Hatfield site was built before there was an awareness of it, we now know that Cascadia produces M> 8 or so earthquakes every 340 years on average (  All of these earthquakes at this latitude are expected to generate tsunami.  There have been 23 of them in the past 10,000 years.  The evidence that these events generate large tsunami is abundant in Yaquina Bay, one of the well known paleoseismic sites is at the Hatfield sandbar.  The tsunami have and will run well up the Yaquina River to Toledo.  The most recent work shows that the probability of an M>8 earthquake is about 20% in the next 50 years, and about 38% in 100 years, which could be considered the lifespan of new structures.

The tsunami from past events have been grouped into bins named for T-shirt sizes, from XS to XXL.  Tsunami from these at the Hatfield site range from barely wet for XS, to 27 ft for the XXL.  There have been two XXL events in the past 10,000 years, a 5000 year average repeat time.  The last one was 5900 years ago.  In a recent letter from OSU president Ed Ray, he stated that the new building would withstand an XXL earthquake and tsunami.  That means a magnitude 9.1 earthquake, and tsunami 27ft high, and moving at 26 knots (30 mph) when it hits the new OSU school building.   Evacuees to a nearby hill may have as much as 40 minutes, or as little as 15 to get there.  It’s 1.4 km away, and they have annual drills for this, but they lack realism.  Typical in tsunami zones that have just undergone an M9 earthquake is rough broken ground and pavement, subsidence of up to a meter (tectonic) and another half meter from liquefaction.  Downed but hot powerlines and other overhead cables and poles, local flooding, and topped off by a panicky bunch of people trying to escape in their cars causing an instant traffic jam.  That’s reality.  Don’t forget that this scheme has to work for everyone, including the disabled, not just the able bodied.

Alternatives?  One would think that the above would be enough to dissuade OSU administrators, but not so.  They, backed up by an array of fish biologists, physical oceanographers whale biologists and other non-earthquake or tsunami experts who all stand to get nice new offices, have persisted in pushing this site, or at least falling in line with the OSU president Ed Ray.    As study of alternative sites was commissioned by OSU, only after heavy pressure from OSSPAC, DOGAMI and the Geology and Geophysics Faculty.  The study examined two alternative sites out of the tsunami zone just to the south.  Both posed no problem from landsliding or earthquake perspectives, and were 3-7% cheaper to construct, probably enough to offset the land costs.  They could also be constructed sooner due to their simplicity, and posed no problems for road or utility access.  OSU has ignored these favorable sites.

There seem to be only two arguments against the alternatives.  One is that communication between researchers would be impaired if they are not all on the sandbar together.  Most of the marine science at OSU is actually done on the Corvallis campus, and is spread among 5 buildings. I work with people at Hatfield all the time, and have no trouble with phone, email and occasional meetings.  Ideal, no, but hardly unusual or worth risking the lives of 600 people.   The other argument is that researchers need the seawater.  Hatfield pumps water out of the bay at high tide, so not really seawater.  A limited number of people and the visitor center use this water.  Building the new building on a safe site can easily be done leaving some wet labs down on the sandbar, or by simply buying a few pumps to get the water uphill.  The only other argument is that a Marine Science Center should be next to the seashore.  This seems quite silly and hardly bears comment as a serious reason when peoples lives are at risk.

Oversight?  Due to relatively weak earthquake laws in Oregon, there is no legal oversight.  The State has failed to implement a new tsunami inundation standard based on high-end research just recently completed, and instead is using  hand drawn line from 1992.  OSU is required to consult with DOGAMI, but there are no teeth in this, and having done that, they can do as they please.  OSU is no longer a State Agency, so somewhat independent.  That leaves the Board of Trustees.  These are largely big donors to OSU (a good way to get on the board) who basically rubber stamp anything OSU does.  Bottom line, there is no oversight.  Letters and meeting requests to Coastal Caucus legislators, the Senate President Peter Courtney, and the Governor, Kate Brown from me and media representatives have been ignored.

So what’s really going on?  Why would OSU persist in this, going against the best available science, the State Geologist, the OSU Geology and Geophysics Faculty, and the Chair and membership of the Oregon State Seismic Policy Advisory Council?  In spite of this strong opposition, the legislature gave $25M to OSU to match a donation (reportedly from the Valley Family) with no hearing at all.  The money was rolled into a large omnibus bill that was never discussed line by line.  No hearing regarding the construction of a disposable building putting students at risk with public funds was ever held.

Follow the Money: What has become clear from the Board of Trustees meeting held in March, 2016, is that coast legislators want OSU to show the world that it’s ok to build in a tsunami zone.  This was stated directly by Representative Gomberg at that meeting.   Wait really?  Coastal legislators, promoting coastal development, want OSU to pave the way for them.  That, in my opinion was what the $25M is for, a straight up purchase of scientific credibility.

As a scientist, and one involved in earthquake research in Cascadia for nearly 30 years, I feel that our work has been undermined, as well as traded on by OSU’s ambitions.  This frankly, is disgraceful.  Ed Ray likes to claim OSU is “World Class”.  What I’ve found is that people and organizations that are truly world class do not need to trumpet it.  OSU by its recent actions has shown that it’s a small time college willing to trade the hard-won credibility of its scientists for a few bucks.  Low class would be more accurate.  These actions send the worst possible message to the community, and make us look like fools, best case.  Someday in the not too distant future, everything on the Hatfield sandbar will be destroyed.  We can only hope that either OSU will come to its senses, or that it will be a weekend or late at night.  If not, a lot of people will be lost for nothing more than the hubris of a long-forgotten group of administrators who never took a risk themselves, but laid that risk at the feet of students who had no way to judge the risk they were taking.

The long term future of the Hatfield sandbar is to be a dog park, or kite flying park, or maybe just a sandbar after the Marine Science Center is destroyed.  Our only real choice is whether or not it will be a Memorial Park.



Written by eqgold

September 23, 2016 at 10:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on suharringtonphotography and commented:
    What will these administrators say to the families of the dead when the CSZ cuts loose? How will their live with the results of their greed and hubris?



    January 24, 2018 at 7:01 pm

  2. “Safe Haven Hill.” Everyone, now including OMSI, uses it as their mitigation strategy for an unwise decision. Yet, I know of no peer reviewed study to determine the actual capacity of Safe Haven Hill for human evacuation and emergency occupancy. This is startling given how essential it is to the proposal.

    President Ray suggest that the site could “accommodate more than 5,000 people…” The population of the City of Newport is just over 10,000. I cannot imagine “half of Newport” on top of Safe Haven Hill. Maybe in a “clown-car” style demonstration, but not 5,000 traumatized people. And, aftershocks are terrifying. In Japan 2011, three large (>7.4) aftershocks occurred within one hour following the main shock! They had three more aftershocks the next day (M6.4- M7.1). I subjectively estimate the capacity of Safe Haven Hill to be 500 traumatized souls.

    Using Google Earth, I counted the number of current buildings with people for whom Safe Have Hill is their nearest high ground. I counted about 50 private homes mostly west of Safe Haven Hill, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, 3 motels, a destination brewery, a multi-slip boat marina with trailer parking, a 50+ site RV Park, a NOAA facility, two docks with OSU and NOAA ships, the HMSC offices, labs, and public Visitor’s Center, and the Oregon Aquarium. It will depend on time of day and year, but a busy summer day could find 3,500 to 5,000 people needing to evacuate to Safe Haven Hill.

    That’s today. Building the MSI building at the HMSC site will incentivize further development in the inundation zone leading to more people in the inundation zone. This is a vicious cycle that will compound our misery.

    Conversely, If OSU builds the MSI building at one of the alternative sites the other agency partners will, in time, as budgets allow, follow us to high ground–making everyone, the system, more “resilient.” Ultimately, everyone will relocate/collocate to higher ground. The only question is when–before the next event, or after.

    I stand for the possibility of OSU aligning its institutional behavior with what its own research has revealed to be true, and become a leader among public institutions in the PNW by demonstrating how to thrive on a subduction zone. The Oregon coast is “open for business,” but it won’t be for long if we keep putting our precious people and valuable infrastructure in vulnerable places. The siting of the MSI building is a golden opportunity to pivot toward hazard resilience and economic sustainability.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 23, 2016 at 11:51 pm

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