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Many Of Oregon's Coastal Schools, Hospitals And Fire Stations At Tsunami Risk


About a third of all schools, hospitals and fire stations along the Oregon coast are in the tsunami zone. That is, they'd likely be washed away in the event of a massive earthquake and tsunami. There are similar fears in Northern California and Washington State. Seismologists say there is a 37 percent chance of a major quake in the Pacific Northwest in the next 50 years - the kind of quake that hit Japan in 2011. Despite the warning, preparations along the coast are weak. As Kristian Foden-Vencil of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, one town is even building a new hospital well within reach of a tsunami.

KRISTIAN FODEN-VENCIL, BYLINE: Gold Beach is a small town on the southern coast of Oregon. It's not rich. The logging economy here is largely faded. And that's why it was a big deal residents passed a $10 million bond to build a new hospital. Wayne Hellerstedt walks through the corridors of Curry General. He's the interim CEO here. He points to the X-ray machines and other medical equipment stored along the corridor walls. But spaces isn't the only problem here.

WAYNE HELLERSTEDT: The fire marshal has said we have until mid-2016 to build a replacement building, or he's going to shut us down.

FODEN-VENCIL: The old hospital was constructed without fire breaks, so smoke, even from a small fire, can spread through the wards, to the offices and even the emergency room. But rather than move the building to higher ground, city officials and hospital executives decided to rebuild in the car park of the old one, four blocks from the ocean and well within the area scientists say a tsunami could reach. Hellerstedt says they're not moving for two main reasons.

HELLERSTEDT: The first one is budgetary. We just couldn't afford to get to the top of a hill, get it level, get a road that has the right grade to be able to handle vehicles to go up there.

FODEN-VENCIL: He says the cost is just prohibitive.

HELLERSTEDT: The second reason is that we want to be close to the town.

FODEN-VENCIL: Hellerstedt says many patients are old and have no means of transportation. They walk to their appointments. There's another wrinkle, too. The hills above Gold Beach are prone to landslides, particularly during the size of quake that precedes a tsunami. And when the state's landslide map is overlaid with a tsunami map, town officials say there's just nowhere left to go. Jay Wilson with the Oregon Seismic Safety Commission says that building a new hospital here is a failure of the state's earthquake preparedness system.

JAY WILSON: The state needs to do a much better job there, and the public needs to hold the state accountable.

FODEN-VENCIL: Some coastal towns have managed to move schools and emergency buildings to higher ground, but in other towns there's been a lack of political will.

WILSON: I think we need to do a much better job in how we apply the science directly to the policies, the rules, the statutes.

TAMIE KAUFMAN: If we get the 9.0, there won't be a town anyway. We're built on sand. It's a river delta.

FODEN-VENCIL: Tamie Kaufman is a Gold Beach city councilor.

KAUFMAN: So our roads are going to be out. Our power is going to be out. It's going to be devastating. It's going to make Hurricane Katrina look like it was nothing. So can we build for that? No. We can't prepare for that completely.

FODEN-VENCIL: But meanwhile, says Kaufman, Gold Beach needs a new hospital for people who are having heart attacks and car accidents right now.

KAUFMAN: It's not crazy that we're building there. I know it seems that way from the outside looking in, but it really isn't.

FODEN-VENCIL: She says it's a good location.

KAUFMAN: It's something we can afford. It's something that's been approved, and they're doing a great job of designing it to withstand as much as they can.

FODEN-VENCIL: The Oregon Seismic Safety Commission still believes true preparedness is possible and maybe even cheaper in the long run. It points to a hospital in Japan that withstood the 2011 earthquake and tsunami because its foundations had been separated from the shaking bedrock by hundreds of metal springs. For NPR News, I'm Kristian Foden-Vencil in Gold Beach, Oregon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kristian Foden-Vencil