In Oregon, residents may not have much time to get to high ground before a tsunami arrives. That is why state and local government efforts are focusing on changing land use to make development safer during an earthquake and tsunami. Meg Reed, coastal hazards specialist at the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development’s Oregon Coastal Management Program says, “Our main focus is to get people out of harm’s way as quickly as possible. We are trying to balance how you make a community safer from tsunami hazards without changing a community’s character. Life safety is the first priority when working toward resilient communities.”
Oregon state law guides land use planning through statewide planning goals. Each city and county meets these standards through adoption of a comprehensive plan and zoning and land-division ordinances.
The state’s coastal management program saw communities struggling with their tsunami preparation. To help meet this need, they developed the Tsunami Land Use Guide. Meg is working with a number of local coastal governments to address this issue.
"It just made sense to develop a tool that helps local governments amend their land use plans and digest new hazard information about tsunamis,” Meg says. “This work is also a way to have communities assess their land both inside and outside of tsunami inundation areas for present and future uses and development."
Meg says this work is notable, as not many people are doing this type of planning. “We don’t have a model to follow; we are piecing together from experiences, other hazard planning processes, and examples from Japan on how to approach this risk.”
Communities are taking the sample code language from the land use guide and using it as a starting point to create development codes and identify where the focus needs to be in terms of resilience projects. “It helps people get over that initial barrier of where to start,” Meg points out.
Meg helps the communities customize the guide’s sample policies and codes to meet specific needs. Another big part of what she does is coordinating and administering the projects for each community, and finding and applying for grants to provide additional resources. “By doing the project coordination, it lifts the burden off the communities so they can focus on the issues and how to customize the approach to their community,” she says.
It is a partnership between the state agency and local governments to work toward tsunami resilience. Meg and other agency staff members provide digested hazard information, GIS and funding support, and sample land use codes, while the local governments lead the effort to update their land use planning documents through the public engagement process.
When asked how they approach communities to do this type of work, Meg attributes it to relationship building and maintenance. Meg says it has a lot to do with just showing up. Her predecessor, Laren Woolley, who retired last year, was well loved and respected by the local communities. Meg is following in his footsteps by building her own relationships with these communities.
“It’s about stopping by the office to chat. They see you are interested in their community. It builds trust,” she notes. “I think what also makes it easier for communities to use the Tsunami Land Use Guide is that many of their staff were on the development team and understand its benefits since they helped write the chapters.”
Communities use the guide’s sample land use policies and provisions related to tsunami risk reduction and recovery. They can use the language as is or modify it as needed. The guide contains a chapter that provides sample comprehensive plan policies and a chapter with development code provisions, including a model tsunami hazards overlay zone. Another chapter provides tsunami financing and incentive tools for implementing some of the tsunami evacuation improvements identified by the community. The guide also contains information resources for developing a tsunami-evacuation facilities improvement plan and preparations for post-disaster recovery.
“Getting to high ground is not always an option, depending on where you are and how bad an earthquake is,” Meg points out. “Therefore, vertical evacuation can be an important consideration in certain communities.”
The City of Newport, Oregon, saw this as an opportunity to increase its resilience in a vulnerable area, and used the guide to amend a building height restriction to allow for the construction of vertical evacuation structures. The city will also ensure that a newly proposed Oregon State University marine science building is constructed to withstand the worst-case scenario earthquake and tsunami event, serving as a vertical evacuation location open to the public.
Other communities are getting close to adopting amended land use plans that include tsunami provisions. Meg says, “Since this is a public process, it takes time. You want to ensure that people get a chance to review and provide input on this important issue.”