New science building to be tsunami fortress

Contractors have bored into the earth and created deep pylons linked to bedrock at the site of the new Marine Studies building at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. (Courtesy photo)

NEWPORT — There really isn't another structure like it on the coast.

Contractors have wrapped up their use of a massive set of augers to both drill down and inject concrete to form a deep underground system of pylons that will stabilize the 72,000-square foot Marine Studies building.

Workers under general contractor Andersen Construction are set to begin on a foundation, then a first floor designed to melt under the force of a tsunami wave. The purpose: to create a building that will not only stand up to the charge of a 29-foot wave and remain erect during the rattling of a 9 magnitude earthquake, but even provide a safe haven for up to 900 people along the bay and South Beach.

The building had its groundbreaking at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in March and is on target for completion in January 2020.

The third floor, located 47 feet above ground, is served by a long concrete ramp and emergency elevator designed to withstand the pounding of The Big One -- a Cascadia Subduction Zone mega-quake which researchers say is bound to hit the coast sooner or later.

When it does, people stuck in an area only 9 feet above sea level will be swarming up the ramp to the top of this tsunami fortress, evacuating vertically to a perch just above the torrent of water rather than following the convention of trying to get as far away as possible. The elevator is equipped with independent power generation similar to systems used in hospitals and critical military facilities. It’s designed to whisk evacuees to the top in the minutes after the quake and before the arrival of the first wave.

"The ramp goes to the top floor, giving vertical evacuation access to as many people as makes sense -- essentially everyone in South Beach," said Mark Farley, a strategic initiatives manager for Hatfield.

Oregon State University,  the owner of the facility, believes the building is an important option for people who may not be able to put enough distance between themselves and the waves.

Crews have drilled down 100 feet through sand to a layer of sandstone, which serves as bedrock for the pylons. Geologists predict the soft surface sand will liquify in a strong earthquake and sink 3-5 feet. Tied to the bedrock, the building probably won't subside more than 1 1/2 inches, said Jim Lewis, facilities manager for Hatfield.

Farley isn't aware of another building in this country designed quite this way.

"The first story is break-away walls; when the water hits, we want it to go through because that takes the stress off the building,” said Farley.

When the walls are swallowed by the first wave, the next series of waves will bring a churning mass of debris which will test the strength of the steel framing left to hold up the evacuation center.

But engineers designed the framework of the $62 million science center with just such a battering in mind.

"This will be a complete demonstration pilot," Farley said. "There have been other vertical evacuation buildings but not ones designed to withstand multiple waves and debris. This thing gets hit multiple times and is still standing and can be recovered -- you don't have to scrap the building."

The top floor will be stocked with emergency caches and generators. It'll be the best hope especially for the injured who can't make it to Safe Haven Hill, located nine minutes away, or another Oregon Coast Community College evacuation site some 12 minutes away.  

The foundation is designed to withstand the scouring action of a tsunami. And a simple pile of dirt about head high will help armor the building.

Harry Yeh, an OSU engineering professor who has studied the destruction of major tsunamis around the globe, found that even a modest mound of earth can help in deflecting the force of tsunami waves.

“They put the berm in so they didn't have to use as much steel," Farley said. "It will look like a parking lot landscape feature."

When finished, upper levels of the three-story building will house labs and faculty offices and the first floor will hold an auditorium and classrooms. The center is designed to withstand a tsunami and earthquake in the extreme end — an estimated 5,000-year event.

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