People along the Oregon Coast ran for their lives on Sunday to escape an imaginary tsunami.
Local, state and federal emergency management agencies hatched the idea for "Race the Wave," a 5K fun run and walk along an actual tsunami evacuation route in Cannon Beach. The event was an example of trying to inject some levity in the serious business of disaster readiness.
The race starter told runners and walkers assembled on the beach to pretend there is a 40 foot wave at their back and then yelled, ”3-2-1... Go!"
With that, a mixture of locals and visitors headed down the hard-packed sand and then turned up into the hills behind the oceanfront hotels and cottages of Cannon Beach for the inaugural "Race the Wave" 5K.
Making disaster preparedness fun
A runner who works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s regional office came up with the idea for a race along an evacuation route years ago. External Affairs Director Ryan Ike of Seattle said it’s about inspiring people to practice and create “muscle memory.”
"We’ve seen these (tsunami evacuation) maps and we've put these really beautiful things together and you’re looking at it on a table and you think, ‘OK, I could run from here to here. That’s not that far,’” Ike said. “But then you get to the bottom of the hill, and you realize I have only a few more minutes and I have got to get this much further. And I have my kids, or I have my bags, or I have all this stuff with me. How would you do that?"
FEMA and Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management approached Cannon Beach to host the first of what they hope will be many races. Here, the finish line is at an emergency supply cache on high ground about three-quarters-of-a-mile inland from the ocean.
After a big earthquake, townspeople and tourists are supposed to evacuate to here by foot -- not by car. Emergency planners assume the Big One will buckle roads, topple trees and bring down power lines.
The time to beat to get to higher ground for most people along the Northwest coast is around 15-25 minutes. This assumes the source of the tsunami waves is the dangerous Cascadia fault zone offshore.
Tsunamis can also come ashore from distant corners of the Pacific. In that case, there's longer lead time to get away from the water.
‘Offer people a way out of a situation’
Earlier in the weekend, emergency planners from Oregon, Washington and the nation’s capital compared notes on fun or creative ways to engage people. Althea Rizzo is an earthquake and tsunami program coordinator for the state of Oregon.
“If people get scared about Cascadia and if they get scared of tsunamis, they become fatalistic. ’There is nothing I can do,’” she said. “But there’s nothing further from the truth.”
Rizzo said the weekend fun run represents the opposite of an “eat your vegetables” approach.
“There is a common thread in risk messaging that you don’t hit them with a lot of negatives,” Rizzo explained. “You offer them a way out of a situation and you give them the tools that they need.”
The enormity of the task facing planners like Rizzo is evident when you consider that 20,000 people might be in harm’s way on a sunny summer weekend just in Cannon Beach. Fewer than 100 practiced the escape route during the inaugural tsunami fun run.
Beating the wave
Race winner Jason Yencopal of Baker County finished with minutes to spare.
"I’m really happy with that,” he said. “It’s a great event. Get the people out here running this so they are more familiar with it, for sure."
A little further back in the field, runner Nancy Thai of Seattle was less certain she would have survived.
“You know, I might swim the last few feet to safety,” she quipped.
Thai said she loves going to the beach. She planned this visit specifically to participate in the tsunami evacuation run.
“Heard about this race at the Red Cross,” she said. “One of our coworkers was saying, ‘There’s this great race. You should go down.’ It's a perfect weekend to come down and learn about tsunami preparedness.”
To reach younger people, Rizzo worked this year with a publisher on an earthquake preparedness comic book. Officials hope teens will read the slick comic and take steps to get themselves and their families ready for the Big One.
On October 11, Eugene will be the scene of a different disaster prep race. In this one, contestants compete to move disaster relief supplies by cargo bike.
Bicycle enthusiasts in Portland and Seattle previously staged similar obstacle courses. The events simulate how a well-equipped cyclist can make a supply run with as much as 100 pounds of provisions following a major earthquake.