School Climate & Safety

Schools on Pacific Coast Prepare for Tsunamis

By Andrew Trotter — January 11, 2005 2 min read
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Some of the most somber reactions to the tsunami that pounded coastal areas across a huge swath of the Indian Ocean occurred in American schools located in low-lying “tsunami inundation zones” along the U.S. mainland’s Pacific coast and in Hawaii.

Those areas are a focus of federal and state government “tsunami hazard mitigation” efforts, because of the fault zone that runs from northern California into British Columbia, Canada, and similar faults off coastal Alaska, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency.

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For example, four of the five schools in the 1,700-student Seaside, Ore., district are in tsunami-inundation zones, according to Doug Dougherty, the district superintendent. Playground bins at the district’s Cannon Beach Elementary School still bear scars from being struck by logs during a 1964 tsunami, which was triggered by an earthquake off the coast of Alaska. That tsunami brought deadly waves that also hit the coast of California.

Although experts say it is theoretically possible for a tsunami to occur in the Atlantic, it is much less likely. That is why programs of detection and hazard mitigation focus primarily on the Pacific coast. For instance, an Oregon law requires schools that are at risk—in about 20 districts—to conduct regular evacuation drills.

The schools in the Seaside district run tsunami drills about three times every school year, on the wail of a warning siren, in addition to drills held by municipalities, Mr. Dougherty said. The district has also prepared instructional videos that are sent home to families.

Routes to Safety

In his schools’ tsunami drills, Mr. Dougherty explained, students are trained to “duck and cover” under their desks during an earthquake, which might cause such a tremendous wave, then to evacuate the area following a specific route.

At Cannon Beach Elementary, for example, the primary evacuation route would take the school’s 135 students across a bridge in four minutes and safely up a hill in about 15 minutes. The backup route involves a longer way, descending through town, then up another hill.

“We recognize that, in many ways, our students are better prepared than adults in our communities because we practice,” Mr. Dougherty said.

Students in Seaside, like those in schools across the United States, are raising relief money through various events at the high school.

The South Asian tsunami and its aftermath have honed what already is a heightened awareness of the risk, Mr. Dougherty said. An earthquake near Alaska, he said, could deliver a tsunami to the coast of Oregon in six to eight hours. A similar earthquake off the coast of Oregon could deliver a much more powerful wave within just 10 or 15 minutes.

“We know it will happen here,” Mr. Dougherty said. “I think seeing the impact of the tragedy that occurred is bringing it home.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as Schools on Pacific Coast Prepare for Tsunamis

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