Facing Cascadia

Patrick Corcoran, Oregon Sea Grant Extension
Patrick Corcoran, Oregon Sea Grant Extension

IN JAPAN, NEARLY 20,000 PEOPLE DIED in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The tragic aftermath struck home in the Pacific Northwest, which faces a similar risk from the Cascadia subduction zone. But we often forget the silver lining. In Japan, there were nearly 200,000 people in the inundation zones, so 90 percent of the people effectively evacuated those areas before the tsunamis arrived.

We can have the same success in the Pacific Northwest if we ever walk the resilience talk the way the Japanese do. But we are a long way from that standard today. People, institutions and communities that understand these risks and take sustained efforts to build resilience to them will not only adapt and survive — they will thrive.

As a hazards outreach specialist with Oregon Sea Grant, I help communities build resilience to coastal natural hazards. These include storms, floods, landslides, fires and our looming catastrophe, the Cascadia earthquake and tsunamis. To prepare as individuals and communities, we must reach the Cascadia standard — if we’re ready for that, we’re prepared for anything. But that’s a high bar, which requires our best thinking. And the clock is ticking.

In my work, I consider the underlying factors that make a community vulnerable, and I explore ways to minimize them. This isn’t hazard response, which focuses on what to do during a disaster. Nor is it hazard recovery, which deals with the aftermath. The question for hazard resilient communities is not, “How many fatalities should we plan for?” but “How can we plan so fewer people will die?”

Residents of the Pacific Northwest are the only population on the planet to learn so recently (about 25 years ago) that they are subject to a recurring natural disaster the magnitude of Cascadia. This hazard has literally fallen into our laps. If our ancestors had known about Cascadia in 1800, they would have settled this country differently. But they didn’t, and now we have many of our valuable things in vulnerable places, especially on the coast.EvacMap

Too often, I find that people do not want to know. Consciously or not, Northwest people and institutions are going through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of death and dying — denial, anger, depression, bargaining with the devil and acceptance/moving on. Manifestations of these behaviors are everywhere: putting valuable things in vulnerable places (denial), being upset about one’s property being in an inundation zone (anger), sadness over lost property value (depression), seeking clever engineering solutions to justify unwise decisions (bargaining with the devil).

But there are also signs of adapting to the realities of the landscape and re-establishing a long-term presence. For example, Waldport High School relocated to higher ground (acceptance and moving on).

Going forward, we may always have some of our valuables in the tsunami zone. Lately I work less with communities on the physical phenomenon — the nature of the geological risk — and more on the psychological, emotional and social impediments to preparing for this event. A key first step is for people to understand enough about the physical phenomenon to actually expect it to happen during their lifetimes or that of their children. Once people actually expect to experience a long, large earthquake, they will naturally prepare for it. People will imagine the scenario, its impact and what they want their loved ones to know and do. Once people actually expect a tsunami to arrive on the beach 15 to 30 minutes after a long, large earthquake, they will naturally think about the impact and what they want their loved ones to know and do.

We have no system in place to consider a community’s vulnerability to Cascadia, nor for building resilience to it. A promising solution is to take our risk management approach to its logical extreme. We can expect this to occur and imagine the impacts of Cascadia to people and things. We can view Cascadia from a systems perspective (transportation, health care, water, energy, food), start adapting to it as a matter of policy and build resilience over time. By actually expecting this to happen, we will naturally come up with adaptations and strategies for thriving in Cascadia.

Patrick Corcoran lives in Astoria and works in the Clatsop County Extension office. As a coastal hazards specialist with Oregon Sea Grant and an associate professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, he works with communities to help them anticipate and prepare for catastrophic events.


  1. Find out from the local emergency management office if there are evacuation routes identified for the community.
  2. Plan to evacuate to high ground or inland, away from the coast and outside of the tsunami zone.
  3. Map out evacuation routes to safe places from the home, workplace or other places people visit frequently.
  4. Practice using evacuation routes, including at night and in bad weather.
  5. Find out about the evacuation plans of local schools.