Coast Road Trip: Unpacking the Pacific Northwest

For most of my life, I’ve lived near the Pacific Ocean. Nothing special about that. A lotta people live near the water, all around the Earth, some, arguably, too close. At least that’s the opinion of The New Yorker’s Kathryn Schulz, whose latest piece, “Oregon’s Tsunami Risk: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” takes aim at the new Oregon law that will allow further building development in tsunami zones along the Oregon coast.

One Oregon state senator, Brian Boquist (R 12), opposed the bill. His district runs parallel to but east of the I-5 from south of Hillsboro (which is just west of Portland) to south of Corvallis, an area covering a significant part of the Willamette Valley, and includes much of Oregon’s wine country, and, situated on the east side of the coast range, is not in a tsunami zone. Schulz mentions Boquist in her article as one of the state’s problematic republicans, but Boquist opposed HB 3309, the bill now signed into law allowing more tsunami zone development on the Oregon coast, with the following explanation:

Secretary: Vote Explanation. Thanks, Sen Boquist

HB 3309 is simply wrong. It allows local government to build unsafe facilities in tsunami zones to save them money. The deaths that will result by building new emergency services facilities that will be destroyed, with deaths, will and should make the city, county and state liable for the deaths. This started two sessions ago allowing OSU to build on liquified Newport Bay so future students will die in a future tsunami. It is clear, the State of Oregon really does not care about tsunami preparation nor the lives of its citizens. Bad policy.

Vote explanation, Senator Brian Boquist, June 17, 2019

The “catchline/summary” of HB 3309 reads as follows:

Directs State Department of Geology and Mineral Industries to study and make recommendations on provisions of state law related to geological and mineral resources of state. Requires department to submit report on findings to Legislative Assembly by January 1, 2021.Removes State Department of Geology and Mineral Industries’ authority to prohibit certain construction within tsunami inundation zone.

Overview, HB 3309

The complete bill, which is only 5 pages in length (“The hand that signed the paper felled a city,” as Dylan Thomas put it, in a different context) can be read here.

According to the Office for Coastal Management: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the coastal counties of the United States fund multiple economies: “Annually, coastal counties produce more than $8.3 trillion in goods and services, employ 55.8 million people, and pay $3.4 trillion in wages.” This helps explain why about half of the US population lives somewhere near the water. But for many, where one lives isn’t a viable choice one makes: “Approximately 40 percent of Americans living in coastal counties fall into an elevated coastal hazard risk category. These include children, the elderly, households where English isn’t the primary language, and those in poverty.” These people the OCM calls “vulnerable populations.” But Oregon’s coastal human population accounts for only about 5% of Oregon’s total population of just over 4 million. Of course that population increases somewhat in the summer tourist season. But for people living on the Oregon coast, life is rural and poor, with local economies largely dependent on tourism – which generates mostly service type jobs.

There are other reasons that might help explain Oregon’s sparse coastal population: the coast mountain range, which makes travel to and from the coast problematic; the weather, wet and wild for most of the year; very cold ocean water temperatures; a rugged coastline marked by cliffs, river estuaries, unnavigable headlands, and north south traffic limited to a single, two lane highway (US 101) with few bypasses and parts of which are washed away or closed by flood and landslide or tree fall nearly every winter.

In June, I spent nine days on the coast. We drove down to Sonoma County, spending a few nights in wine country Healdsburg, to attend a family reunion surrounding a 60th birthday celebration. We spent two nights in Crescent City, which this Slate article calls “Tsunami City, USA.” We walked along the big beach crescent out into the harbor area and ate fish and chips at “The Chart Room,” a local and tourist favorite. We shared our table with a couple of guys, one older even that us, a 90 year old gentleman celebrating his birthday month with a trip up the coast. We talked about the coast, places to stop and see, compared notes. No one mentioned the fact that we were drinking beer and eating fish and chips deep within a tsunami inundation zone. In fact, we were in what DOGAMI calls an XXL zone. That’s a tsunami t-shirt so big it will swallow a whale. From the Crescent City Harbor District History page:

The Inner Boat Basin at the Crescent City Harbor District was damaged by a 2006 tsunami, but was totally destroyed by the tsunami that struck the harbor on March 11, 2011.  The damage from both events required three years to rebuild.  (The word tsunami in Japanese translates literally as “harbor wave.”)

Crescent City Harbor District

I’m going to stop here for today. But for now I’ll leave you with this: between the devil and the deep blue sea, for most of my life, I’ve taken the sea.

to be continued: this is part one of a series that will cover our June 2019 coastal road trip.