I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. It was 1989 and I was at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, a friend having wrangled tickets to game three of the “Bay Bridge” series. The Oakland A’s great Bob Welch was about to take the mound. I say “great” because he was a Cy Young Award winner who had managed to win 27 games in one season.
But he also had the reputation of being something of a “nervous” pitcher, subject to the odd mood-induced erratic outing. So my first reaction upon feeling the concrete heave beneath my feet was: uh oh, earthquake, that can’t be good for Bob Welch’s nerves. Funny how myopic we can be at times.
Here I was worried about a pitcher’s mood after the worst Bay Area earthquake in decades.
Of course, the game was called, and when it was played 11 days later, Oakland fans rode the ferry from Jack London Square to San Francisco, because the unthinkable had happened—a chunk had fallen out of the Bay Bridge, making that section of U.S. Highway 80 impassable.
I remember during those following weeks and months a laudable increase in earthquake preparedness activity. People were organizing phone trees, block groups, neighborhood preparedness plans, storing food and water in their laundry rooms and garages. But a year passed, then two, and people began to slack again.
Planning and preparing for a major, terrible, horrible disaster that may be far in the future really isn’t in our DNA, but every now and again, nature has to give us a little nudge to goad us into thinking about the unthinkable.
For Seaside, Oregon, the reminder came in 2004, when an earthquake/tsunami devastated Southeast Asia. Seaside is near an area of the Pacific where one tectonic plate is sliding under another one, a geological twin to those coastal areas of Indonesia and Thailand.
With its low-lying level topography, Seaside would be one of the most vulnerable communities in Coastal Oregon in the event of a tsunami. Four of the city’s five schools are located in the inundation zone of a possible tsunami, so these days the schools conduct twice yearly evacuation drills.
In 2005, the city hired graduate student Darcy Conner to design and implement an outreach program to educate locals about the danger posed by tsunamis. The grad student set up a voluntary citizens group to help implement the program once her contract with the city expired, and the city hired a part-time coordinator.
TAG, the Tsunami Advisory Group consists of Ham Radio operators, a local geologist, a nurse, a firefighter and an engineer. During the past three years TAG has, among other things:
- Conducted three “emergency expos”
- Created a PowerPoint presentation to educate residents
- Amassed 100 barrels of survival gear and rations placed in households outside the flood zone
- Developed evacuation maps and emergency kits to be distributed throughout the community
The city’s part-time tsunami preparedness coordinator has been hired by the state to spread the word around the state, and the Seaside program has become a model for communities up and down the coast of Oregon. Seaside’s precautions were further vindicated in March with the tsunami in Japan.
Tsunami preparedness is one of three community projects listed in Seaside’s bid to be an All-America City in 2011. It may seem like a prosaic matter, developing emergency plans and educational materials for a potential disaster, but it requires civic leaders and ordinary citizens to do a lot of clear thinking about events that are both rare and unthinkable.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.