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The Little Tsunami That Couldn't: Oregon Coast History, 2009

Published 03/14/21 at 7:20 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

The Little Tsunami That Couldn't: Oregon Coast History, 2009

(Oregon Coast) – On Tuesday, September 29, 2009, a magnitude 8.3 quake shook the hell out of the ocean floor off Somoa and triggered a tsunami. Its effects were far-reaching, causing the National Weather Service (NWS) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to issue a tsunami advisory for the Washington and Oregon coastline, as well as California.

The result was a bit of anxiousness along the Oregon coast and some evacuating – unknowingly a dry run for the March 11 tsunami alert of 2011 (See Looking Back: 10-Yr Anniversary of Tsunami Scare on Oregon Coast). Yet no order to get of Dodge was issued as the NWS predicted a swell of only a few inches, no more than a slightly bigger wave in winter.

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As the advisory first went out, it predicted a mild tsunami of up to two feet, arriving approximately 10 p.m. A little while later it turned into the lowest level tsunami alert possible.

“A Tsunami Advisory means that a tsunami capable of producing strong currents or waves dangerous to persons in or very near the water is imminent or expected,” the NWS said in a bulletin on that day. “Significant, widespread inundation is not expected for areas under an advisory. Currents may be hazardous to swimmers, boats, and coastal structures and may continue for several hours after the initial wave arrival.”

However, various police, sheriffs and coast guard agencies were keeping people off the beaches. Curious onlookers could be at risk for this larger-than-normal sneaker wave.

By the next day and Thursday, the Oregon coast was back to normal. No discernible rise in wave surges occurred. Some scientists reported slightly measurable wave activity in California, however.

Back in 2009, Oregon Coast Beach Connection was reporting the minute-by-minute developments of the alerts, and then the reactions in the following days. While many coastal residents were chuckling over the event, government agencies were applauding the chance for a dry run of a tsunami warning and reaction. The general consensus was that it all went well and efficiently.

Low lying beaches like Moolack Beach in Newport were evacuated, however.

Angi Wildt, now owner of the Angi D. Wildt Gallery in Astoria, was working at a shop in Depoe Bay in those days.

“Everyone that came in that door was talking about it,” Wildt said. “Nobody was worried or scared.”

In Manzanita – about 76 feet above the sea and several blocks back – the San Dune Inn was operating back then, owned by Brian Hines. He said visitors to town were better informed than he was initially.

“First I heard about it, a couple came in and asked if we were in the 'zone,' " Hines said in 2009. "They checked in as they didn't want to stay further down by the beach."

Hines said some of his employees had only gotten half the situation right and he had to calm them a little and explain the advisory.

In Gleneden Beach, one witness told Oregon Coast Beach Connection her husband awoke her at nearly 3 a.m. to look at something truly odd.

“My husband heard a strange noise like before an avalanche, and he looked out,” she said. “He said the ocean had no waves and looked black out to the horizon. He even woke me up to show me. Perhaps it was an ‘aftershock’ causing it.”

There was never any explanation as to what the couple saw that night.

Depoe Bay seawall

At least one TV news crew from Portland watching the surf at Cannon Beach noticed similar wave action, which can happen during more active surf and not necessarily the result of any unusual wave surge.

Wildt said there were about ten other people gathered at the seawall of Depoe Bay to watch if anything unusual happened. She said there was a sense of everyone being energized and excited about what might happen.

In the end, it was a story with no climax, only the lesser-than-a-surprise ending that nothing happened. Not even a little wave. Still, it's a good reminder how we all need to be prepared for the Big One, which could strike at any moment.

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