Building Codes Instrumental For Tsunami Zones

Oregon policymakers may shake up development rules in tsunami zones.

As Tom Banse reports on Seattle’s KUOW website, “Sooner or later the offshore Cascadia fault zone is going to unleash a monster earthquake and tsunami.” But because of lack of buildable land, some legislators want to end a rule that keeps schools and public safety buildings outside the reach of a tsunami:

… Unlike Washington and California, the Oregon Legislature made it a rule in the mid-1990s that certain “essential facilities” cannot be built inside the tsunami inundation zone — namely new hospitals, fire and police stations, schools, colleges and jails.

The current set of legislators from the Oregon coast now wants to junk that rule. State Rep. David Gomberg (D-Lincoln City) voiced concern about a chilling effect on the coastal economy.

“Who wants to build a new house in a neighborhood that is too dangerous for a fire department?” he asked. “Who wants to start a new business in a neighborhood that’s not safe enough for a fire department or police department?”

Gomberg told a legislative panel he’s seeing “a subtle disinvestment” from the coast.

“Our concern in summary is that as we prepare for a major natural disaster, we don’t at the same time create an economic disaster,” Gomberg said.

But disaster preparedness advisors are raising alarms about a wholesale lifting of the moratorium on building new critical facilities in the tsunami zone. The Oregon law in question doesn’t restrict private development or home construction.

“I’m very concerned we could arrive at a situation where we have very weak regulatory control over what is being built in the tsunami inundation zone,” said Jay Raskin, the outgoing chair of Oregon’s seismic safety advisory panel.

Raskin says it’s true that there is a scarcity of buildable land on the hillsides behind many Oregon coast towns. He said a good way to untangle what he calls this “Gordian knot” would be for the state to adopt the latest international building code.

California and Washington state have recently adopted the latest international building code with an effective date of 2020. The code revisions allow for new public buildings on the coastline if a higher construction standard is met, generally involving stronger foundations and robust steel-reinforced concrete.

Read the full blog post here.