January 26 — 320 years ago


Hard to believe it’s January 2020, and like many of you, I’ve made my New Year’s resolutions — to exercise more, lose some weight, eat healthier and spend more time with family. It may also be a good time to make sure your family’s preparedness gear and earthquake and tsunami plan is ready.

Living on the Oregon coast is awesome, and celebrating the holidays is fun, but I feel commemorating the events of Jan. 26, 1700 is also worth some effort. Not much is known about what occurred here that day, yet from indigenous people who lived on the Cascadia coast for thousands of years, they transferred knowledge from generation to generation through storytelling. Pacific Northwest Indian tales and legends related to the 1700 megathrust earthquake tell the story of an epic battle between the Thunderbird and the Whale found among Pacific Northwest tribes from Vancouver Island to Oregon's coastal tribes.

These stories are of the Cascadia thrust fault rupturing along a 680-mile length, from Vancouver Island to northern California, in a great earthquake producing tremendous shaking and a huge tsunami that swept across the Pacific and their effects on the people of Cascadia before westerners arrived.

The Cascadia fault is the boundary between two of the Earth's tectonic plates; the smaller offshore Juan de Fuca plate that is sliding under the much larger North American plate. The earthquake also left unmistakable signatures in the geological history as the outer coastal regions subsided and drowned coastal marshlands and forests that were subsequently covered with younger sediments. The geological record tells us the Jan. 26, 1700 event was not a unique event, but has repeated many times at irregular intervals of hundreds of years.

The 1980s was a decade of discovery on the great Cascadia Subduction Zones earthquakes. Brian Atwater, David Yamaguchi, Chris Goldfinger (OSU) and others produced detailed evidence of abrupt land level changes and tsunami inundation in the 1990s, refining our understanding of the great earthquake that occurred at about 9 p.m. on Jan. 26, 1700, and indisputable evidence it will happen again.

Planning for these events is a daunting challenge, yet, communities and organizations have been building food, water and shelter caches, and many buildings are being seismically retrofitted, increasing their odds they will withstand a significant quake.

This is a very serious threat to our coast, so much so that Lincoln County School District has built new public schools, moving all our students to safer areas out of the tsunami inundation zones, and OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport is building their new facilities to survive a quake and provide vertical evacuation to escape the tsunami.

Regardless, the fact remains that many people throughout Pacific Northwest have not accepted how serious a “megathrust” Cascadia Subduction Zone event is and that it will occur again — the clock is ticking.

To hear the story about Cascadia Subduction Zone and learn how to prepare for earthquake, tsunami, wildfire, severe weather events, as well as the zombie apocalypse, sign up for the two-session Disaster Preparedness in the PNW at Oregon Coast Community College next month, Thursdays, Feb. 20 and 27, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Lincoln City campus.

 Jim Kusz teaches about disaster preparedness for the Pacific Northwest. He lives in Lincoln City.

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