SEASIDE, Ore. — An earthquake near the Oregon Coast or further offshore could trigger a massive tsunami that threatens the entire Oregon coastline. When the tsunami sirens go off, emergency officials hope people on the coast will walk or run to higher ground.
That’s not easy for seniors, especially those who rely on walkers, wheelchairs or the assistance of a caregiver. They’ll need help evacuating.
“Because of where we live, we need to always be prepared,” said 85-year old Bobbie Abel of Seaside. “We are due for a tsunami.”
Evacuating seniors proved to be a tremendous challenge after Japan’s deadly earthquake in 2011. Around 16,000 people died in the resulting tsunami. More than half of the victims were at least 65 years old.
In Oregon, a Cascadia Zone earthquake off the coast could trigger swells of water 40 feet or higher. The tsunami is expected to hit as quickly as 15 minutes after the earthquake.
A KGW investigation identified 11 long-term care facilities located in the tsunami evacuation zone along the Oregon Coast. Those facilities, located from Astoria to Gold Beach, are home to 575 seniors.
One of the care facilities, Neawanna by the Sea, is just a few blocks within the tsunami evacuation zone on North Wahanna Road in Seaside. The retirement and assisted-living facility has 48 residents, many of whom have mobility issues.
“One of the biggest challenges is to keep them from being afraid and not panic,” explained Abel, a resident of Neawanna by the Sea.
If a Cascadia Zone earthquake and tsunami were to strike off the Oregon Coast, residents would move to the second floor, assuming the building is still intact.
“We have what we call our ‘tsunami room’ upstairs. It holds at least a week’s worth of shelf-stable food,” explained executive director Tammy Tucker. “Residents have been advised to have blankets and pillows. We’ll just hunker down.”
There’s no way to know if caregivers would be able to reach the property after a massive earthquake. Residents anticipate they’d have to help one another shelter in place.
Avamere at Seaside is also in the tsunami evacuation zone. The assisted living and memory care facility sits just a quarter mile from the Pacific Ocean and has 64 residents.
“We try and prepare the facility the best we can. We train the staff for evacuation. We try and make sure that people remain calm in the event,” explained Deborah Nedelcove, vice president of risk management for Avamere.
In the event of a major earthquake, residents would either shelter in place or be evacuated from the facility on South Roosevelt Drive in Seaside.
“We would probably take them to the second floor,” said Nedelcove. “If we had a little more warning, we would remove them from the facility in a van.”
In a disaster, employees may also be asked to help patients by putting them in cars and driving to higher ground, Nedelcove said.
Getting residents out of a memory care facility could be especially challenging because they may not understand what they’re being asked to do.
“I don’t know how you could be totally prepared for something like this,” Nedelcove explained.
Evacuating seniors by car is an unlikely option because roads and bridges could be badly damaged.
“We will not be able to drive after a major earthquake,” said Tiffany Brown, the Clatsop County emergency manager.
“I think that for many of those facilities, moving to the second floor is really the only viable option,” Brown said. “They don’t have time or distance on their side in terms of getting themselves or their residents to higher ground.”
In a worst-case scenario, the second floor might not be high enough. A 2015 study estimated a Cascadia earthquake would push water levels higher than 60 feet at Neawanna by the Sea in Seaside. The Avamere at Seaside location was modeled to have 40-50 foot water levels. In both facilities, the second floor would be inundated.
Click the "Tsunami Evacuation Zones" on the interactive map to see the threat from a Cascadia earthquake (yellow) or one further offshore (brown). Zoom in to see how the tsunami would impact each town and the senior facilities (pink, green and blue icons).
“With proper planning, it is plausible they could get out in time,” said Nathan Wood with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Wood used a complex formula including walking speed, ground conditions and slope to generate computer maps showing how long it would take people to evacuate to higher ground.
He estimates residents at the Neawanna by the Sea could be outside the tsunami evacuation zone within six minutes.
“It’s close to high ground," Wood said. "They basically have to walk up a road and they are in a residential development.”
The residents at Avamere at Seaside would have a much longer walk to safety. Wood estimates those seniors would have to walk more than a mile to higher ground.
“That’s a pretty long walk for a person in a nursing facility,” said Wood.
With limited time to evacuate, emergency managers emphasize the importance of planning. Long-term care facilities should train staff and residents how to evacuate.
Seniors living in private homes along the Oregon coast should also be prepared. Seventeen percent of Seaside residents are older than 65. If disaster strikes, many of those seniors will also need help.