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Looking Back: 10-Yr Anniversary of Tsunami Scare on Oregon Coast

Published 03/11/21 at 7:20 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Looking Back: 10-Yr Anniversary of Tsunami Scare on Oregon Coast

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(Oregon Coast) - On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 undersea quake hit close to the coastline of Japan, wreaking all kinds of havoc and destruction in the Tōhoku area, and causing more than one tsunami that dealt even deadlier blows to the nation. What’s often known as the Great Sendai Earthquake of 2011 killed 15,000 people.

Here in the states, it often gets the misnomer “Fukushima Quake,” largely a leftover from the conspiracy theorists who clung tightly to the false notions about radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plant making it to the U.S.

The real names – including Tōhoku Earthquake of 2011 and others – describe an event that also had a profound effect on the Oregon coast, as well as Washington and California. It created a tsunami scare here late at night on the 10th, lasting well into the morning of the 11th.

It’s ten years ago today all that took place, and Oregon Coast Beach Connection covered it in-depth, moment-by-moment, as coastal residents fled their homes in the middle of the night. Despite the fear, the evacuations were orderly, and Oregon officials were rather impressed by how locals and visitors had handled the whole thing so smoothly.

It all began about 9 p.m. on March 10, as media outlets broke the news throughout the world about the devastation. Locally, news stations stayed on the air well past 11:30, awaiting word on if any tsunami may be expected on the Oregon coast. Indeed, by 1 a.m. a full tsunami warning was issued and the public was told to evacuate the coast.

One extremely powerful moment was watching the news team from KGW Channel 8 talking to a USGS scientist live. When he announced that six-foot waves were quite possible for Cannon Beach and Seaside, you could see the newscasters’ faces go white. They fell silent and were momentarily wordless.

In Florence, the alarms went off around 3 a.m. In Seaside and Cannon Beach, it was closer to 5 a.m., but evacuations by bullhorn began closer to 1 a.m. In Lincoln City and most parts of Tillamook County, sirens finally fired off around 5 a.m.

Some places never had the sirens go off.

Traffic on the coast range passes got heavy and problematic. Ice became an issue on the summits.

Oregon Coast Beach Connection’s site crashed over and over due to people all over the world checking our constant updates. We were receiving new information every few minutes from evacuees out there. In Pacific City, things were going smoothly, one witness said: “We were incredibly prepared.”

Between 2:30 a.m. and 3 a.m., Warren House employee Shawn Lamunyon called Oregon Coast Beach Connection’s Portland office and said the roads were busy with people trying to head out. But in Seaside, where at least one extra gas station opened up to keep up with the demand, there were near-traffic jam conditions with people in line to get gas. Later TV reports showed lines 20 cars deep at times, as this was the only gas available for residents of other nearby towns like Cannon Beach and Manzanita.

By this time, Lamunyon had packed up some belongings and his massive dog Wookie and was hightailing it for the hills. To where?, he was asked.

“I don’t know yet,” Lamunyon said.

Emergency vehicles with bullhorns were going around Cannon Beach and warning people. Sirens went off in Manzanita several times but not until after 5 a.m.

In Cannon Beach, The Ocean Lodge started handing out blankets and other goodies to evacuees of that oceanfront hotel.

Those on higher ground had the option to leave but weren’t required to, such as some lodgings up high at Lincoln City’s Roads End area.

Around 3 a.m., Lincoln County Emergency Management personnel told Oregon Coast Beach Connection they were readying the sirens and telling people to get at least 50 feet above sea level.

Two vacation rental businesses in Lincoln City at the time said they heard no sirens. Both had to alert some guests to hightail it out.

One big element would be telling for what kind of damage the tsunami would create here: what would it do when it hit Hawaii? When the wave came ashore there about 5 a.m. or so, it wasn’t a massive one. This was a good sign.

Soon, the USGS changed its tune and predicted only a small, probably-indiscernible wave would hit here about 8 a.m.

By and large that was true, except on the southern Oregon coast. There, one California man dared the larger incoming wave and was swept out to sea. Four people were injured near Gold Beach trying to experience this first-hand. In Newport, there was footage of one man getting knocked over hard by a wave that was bigger than people thought.

A little later in the day, Port Orford’s marina was slammed by a delayed wave, causing millions of dollars in damage. Depoe Bay also got smacked badly in the bay, damaging boats as well.

The aftermath of the Japanese tsunami lasted for a few years, with a ton of sometimes-spooky stuff showing up along the Oregon coast, including invasive species.

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Photo below courtesy Seaside Aquarium: Japanese tsunami debris found later

Below: tsunami debris boat found in Cannon Beach

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KEYWORDS: Oregon Coast Tsunami March 2011, Japanese quake tsunami, tsunami damage Oregon, Oregon coast tsunami March 11 date