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Oregon Editors Say:

West Coast should be ready

We share a vulnerability to tsunamis with the residents of Sumatra

The Daily Astorian

Mothers and fathers wailing in horror over the bodies of drowned children. Vacationing tourists who will never go home. Poor villagers instantly stripped of every possession who now face slow death from waterborne disease.

All this and more are the torrent of despair roiling outward from a wound in the sea bed off the legendary island of Sumatra.

Even in a world where natural and manmade disasters quietly reap thousands of lives each month, the events of Dec. 26 will be recorded in history as one of the most mighty paroxysms of all time. Smashing seaside villages in some of the planet's poorest nations, 40-foot-high walls of water carried away thousands of ordinary innocent people who may never even be acknowledged as dead.

Aceh, the northern tip of Sumatra, which was nearest the rip in the undersea subduction zone where one crustal plate is raggedly sliding under another, deserves to be embraced by the people of coastal Oregon and Washington.

In a frightening and profound way, we are brothers and sisters with the residents of the smashed villages of Aceh. We, too, live above one of earth's subduction zones.

— Running only a few miles offshore from the mouth of the Columbia, the Cascadia subduction zone has ruptured many times, most recently in January 1700, when a great magnitude 9-plus earthquake sent a series of giant tsunamis smashing into the then-sparsely populated coast.

The Chinook people have no written accounts of this event, or of the several other earlier cataclysmic tsunami cycles that have pulverized this shore perhaps a dozen times since humans migrated here following the last ice age. But scientists tell us that great waves have repeatedly submerged and killed entire forests, for example overwashing much of the Long Beach Peninsula, sweeping ocean sands far up the rivers on the eastern shore of Willapa Bay.

In the intervening three centuries, the coast from Vancouver Island, British Columbia to Northern California has filled up with tens of thousands of homes and hundreds of thousands of people.

Are we really prepared for a disaster on the scale of that unfolding in southern Asia? The only honest answer is an emphatic no.

On the simplest level, this is a good time to remind everyone here to immediately get as high above, and as far away, as possible from the shoreline following any major earthquake. If our subduction zone breaks, there will be no time for formal tsunami warnings.

Know where the nearest high ground is, and head that way immediately. The first tsunami can arrive within 15 minutes.

Remember also that tsunamis arrive in series, with subsequent waves often higher than the first. Stay away from low-lying areas until local authorities give the all-clear.

Beyond this, from emergency drills to building codes that encourage quake-resistant buildings, we can take steps now to minimize loss of life when the inevitable next great quake occurs. For example, in low-lying areas more than 15 to 20 minutes away from high ground, new buildings should be designed to provide safe upper floors, known as vertical evacuation.

As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, our turn will come. Some will die. But responsible and diligent planning can save many, many lives.