Oregon Lawmakers Advance Bill To Establish Tsunami Zone Building Standards

Feb 13, 2020

An Oregon House panel advanced a measure Thursday that would establish building standards for critical infrastructure in tsunami zones.

Last year, Oregon lawmakers removed a ban on building critical infrastructure in tsunami zones…things like police and fire departments, schools and hospitals. Some coastal communities said the ban stifled development, since there’s little room to build inland. Critics of ending the ban said the longstanding policy would save lives during a tsunami and would help coastal areas recover more quickly afterwards.

Now, lawmakers are moving ahead with a bill that adopts building standards for public infrastructure that does get built in a tsunami zone.

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network

Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, called House Bill 4119 an important follow-up to last year’s legislation.

“I think the public is going to welcome this, because I think in the wake of last session, when we passed the bill, people were saying ‘Are you sure that you want to be doing that?’” said Witt.

But Rep. Chris Gorsek, D-Troutdale, the Vice-Chair of the panel, said last year’s vote to remove the ban was a bad idea, and that the new building standards won’t solve the problem.

“Building in a tsunami inundation zone is extremely dangerous,” he said. “And I don’t want us to be responsible down the line when we’ve passed something like this and a tsunami does sweep in and do great amounts of damage.”

Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, whose district hugs the southern Oregon coast, said opposition to the proposal comes from people who live inland and therefore don’t have to deal with the economic realities of his district.

“We’re not going to be building critical facilities in tsunami inundation zones because we want to,” he said. “There’s just situations in our coastal communities that there is no upland to build those facilities, unfortunately.”

Some people who testified at a hearing this month urged lawmakers to re-instate the ban that was removed last year.

“When you build a building in a tsunami zone to a particular standard, that standard allows for the survival of the steel frame of the building,” said Oregon State University geologist Chris Goldfinger. “It says nothing about whether the building’s going to be functional after the wave hits it, or whether anybody in the building is going to survive.”