This research develops a way of answering the question, “Should we continue to build there?” Past catastrophic disasters can help identify the economic, geopolitical, and social factors of each community’s recovery following catastrophic disaster. Equipped with a better understanding of these factors, communities can identify and address future recovery challenges before the next catastrophic event.
The locus for this research occurred between 2010 and 2014, while serving as the lead planner for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) earthquake and tsunami response planning efforts. Federal Emergency Management Agency Region X led the project, which involved close collaboration with the states of Washington and California, federal response partners, and city and county governments.
Avoiding a Dangerous Path
As the massive impact of a CSZ event was revealed, an ever-present hope or even assumption by planning teams was that a mass evacuation of coastal areas would lessen the burden on response and recovery. Discussions on evacuating the coastal areas occurred by planners in all phases of government, throughout the planning process, most surprisingly from local emergency managers wanting to force (albeit within legal guidelines) residents to abandon their homes, in order to place less of a support burden on the limited resources in these coastal counties.
This line of thought was appealing to many who were struggling to figure out ways of providing logistical support for survivors over the shattered roadways and bridges of the Oregon Coast Range, as depicted in the event scenario parameters. However, this approach was equally appalling to many who saw it as an overreach of state and federal emergency powers and detrimental to long-term recovery.
Basing important recovery planning on the immediate response actions – in this case, abandonment of communities – can be a dangerous concept as those communities look toward recovery. This danger is magnified when recovery decisions exclude the intentions of disaster survivors (or research on what the involvement and intentions of survivors should be) to ensure revival of their devastated lives and communities.
Cascadia Subduction Zone Impacts
Of the Oregon coastal communities, Seaside has some of the most concentrated vulnerabilities to damage as a result of a CSZ earthquake and tsunami, as determined by the Department of Homeland Security National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center. The event is modeled to generate a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a resulting tsunami 12-80 feet in height, as described in the 2013 CSZ Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Response Plan. The devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, being a geologically similar event, provides some insight on the damage the northwestern United States is likely to endure.
According to the CSZ Response Plan, this disaster would create unprecedented damage and potentially thousands of casualties in the northwest. In 2012, the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission estimated in its 2012 Oregon Resilience Plan that impacts of a CSZ earthquake and resultant tsunami in the northwest could include mass fatalities into the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of destroyed or extensively damaged buildings, approximately $32 billion in economic losses, 27,600 displaced households, and almost one million dump truck loads of debris. Highways and utility infrastructure are particularly vulnerable to widespread ground failure, with timelines of critical infrastructure restoration ranging from three months to three years.
The Oregon Resilience Plan further stated that Seaside has 83 percent of its population and 100 percent of its critical facilities in the tsunami inundation zone. Making matters worse is the topography of the city, which is located less than 17 feet above sea level. If the earthquake indeed occurs as modeled, much of Seaside would simply be leveled and washed away, and many of its residents would be unable to reach high ground 1.5 miles away because of damaged roadways and bridges.
Societal Factors Impacting Recovery
This study investigated examples of past catastrophic disasters and positive and negative experiences as those communities struggled to return to normal. Based on the case study findings, an analysis was created of the current economic, geopolitical, and social factors in the city of Seaside, Oregon, following a CSZ earthquake and tsunami to identify future recovery challenges.
In addition, the study identified shortcomings in the assumptions of existing response and recovery plans. Through pre-identification of physical, social, and political limitations other communities have faced, proactive land use, response, and recovery planning decisions could be implemented that increase the likelihood that communities can successfully emerge from disaster. The case study communities of L’Aquila, Italy, Watsonville, California, and Valdez, Alaska, following catastrophic earthquakes were selected to attempt to answer the research questions. These communities have all faced significant earthquakes and differing challenges in recovery.
With the incredible challenges associated with catastrophic natural disaster response and recovery, it was important to recognize how factors contribute to the successful rebuilding or abandonment of a devastated city. Using the identified factors in the case study communities, the next step was to determine the impacts of these factors on the recovery of Seaside after a catastrophic 9.0 magnitude CSZ earthquake and tsunami.
Abandoning the Idea of Abandonment
Abandonment was rejected by community actions in all of the case study communities; even in Valdez, which had to be moved from a devastated and precarious site. Disaster survivors in those communities, despite their tragic losses, wanted to rebuild and fought with the government in some cases to stay in their communities. For survivors leaving the community – or denied the opportunity to participate in its reconstruction – psychological and social issues developed, which affected the recovery.
The case studies show that humans have an established sense of place and social connection to their communities, which provides attachment and satisfaction to their place in the world. To outsiders looking in, this attachment is seen as illogical and costly when it is in direct conflict to catastrophic disasters, such as a CSZ earthquake and tsunami. The case study communities have shown that the sense of place and local citizen’s involvement in its reconstruction are key to the recovery of a community and the mental health of its residents. Decisions on the fate of a community – its reconstruction or abandonment – are a local, city block by city block, personal issue. It is not a decision that can be made at a statewide or national level without having serious effects on survivors of the disaster.
The strongest and intertwined trend in the case study communities was the importance of land use planning when planning for, responding to, and recovering from disaster. Based on the case studies and learning from the challenges they faced following disaster, the conclusion of this research is that land use planning is critical to disaster response, resilience, and recovery. For areas subject to disaster, land use planning should be more intimately interwoven before an incident. Emergency management organizations should plan for both development and reconstruction following disaster, with efforts in response and recovery planning.
Oregon’s Statewide Planning Goals
The state of Oregon has a mechanism in place to engage public safety recovery planning through the 19 statewide planning goals developed in 1973 to “express the state’s policies on land use and related topics, such as citizen involvement, housing, and natural resources.” Currently, the only statewide planning goal out of the 19 to address natural disaster is Goal 7: Areas Subject to Natural Hazard, which requires local governments to adopt comprehensive land use plans to “reduce risk to people and property from natural hazards.”
Goal 7 requires local governments to evaluate the risk of natural hazards and limit or mitigate development in those identified areas. Although highly focused on mitigation, floodplain protection, and implementation of the National Flood Insurance Program, Goal 7 does not address recovery from catastrophic disaster nor planning for future effects on the city boundaries and location of a devastated community.
Coordination with emergency management planners and local citizen groups could be important measures to address some of the pre-event land use and recovery planning that the case study communities were forced to address after events. The 19 statewide planning goals have citizen involvement at their core. As such, the holistic, multiuse planning goals designated by the program could allow planning for the future land use realities of a tsunami-impacted community, such as Seaside, easier to manage. Perhaps it is time for a 20th planning goal that addresses public safety and preparedness to bridge the gap between sunny day planning and that occurring after disaster.
As the state prepares for a CSZ earthquake and tsunami, emergency response, recovery, and mitigation/resilience planners are dealing with multiple issues directly related to either existing or future post-event land use issues. The challenge for Seaside and the state of Oregon is in maximizing the strength of these existing planning program areas and fusing the two disciplines’ very different but extremely complementary missions. This can only help in the recovery of Seaside and other communities throughout Oregon.
For additional information: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region X. (2013). Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) Catastrophic Earthquake and Tsunami Response Plan. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Charles (Chuck) Perino is the emergency manager and safety officer for the City of Albany, Oregon. He has worked in Oregon land use and emergency management planning for over 20 years. He graduated from the Naval Postgraduate School with a master’s degree in Homeland Defense and Security in 2014 and earned his Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) accreditation in 2022.