The Current

Surviving the 'human liquidizer': Getting ready for a tsunami strike on the West Coast

From earthquakes to tsunamis, people along the west coast are going to extreme lengths to prepare for 'the big one.'
Jeanne Johnson has invested in a Survival Capsule that can survive a tsunami — and has just enough room for her dog as well.

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After a tsunami warning along the B.C. coast recently, alarmed residents are taking steps to avoid ending up in what one expert called "a human liquidizer."

The warning was triggered by an earthquake in the Gulf of Alaska on Jan. 23, with sirens in towns like Tofino and Port Alberni jolting people awake in the early hours of the morning.

In other communities on Vancouver Island, many people slept right through the text alerts on their muted phones.

"A lot of people slept through the whole thing," said Gregor Craigie, host of CBC's On The Island, "And that sparked a lot of conversation here on Vancouver Island about how to improve the tsunami warning systems."

"But you know sirens aren't the only preparation some people in this part of the world have taken, and there are some pretty extreme measures."

The warning was cancelled a few hours after it was issued, but Craigie was prompted to find out how residents in B.C. and the U.S. Pacific Northwest are preparing for "the big one," from near-indestructible school desks to personal floating survival pods.

'Human liquidizer'

Jeanne Johnson lives in the Washington State community of Long Beach, situated on a peninsula. The tsunami risk here is exacerbated by how far the area juts out into the sea; people wouldn't have enough time to reach high ground in an emergency.

Johnson moved to Washington State from the US midwest, where she spent years living under the threat of tornadoes. Used to planning around natural disasters, she's invested in a Survival Capsule, an escape pod designed to survive tsunamis.

The spherical pod is made of airplane-grade aluminum, with two seats, air tight vents, room for supplies and a locking marine door. It's designed to float away in a tsunami, bobbing to the surface as it keeps the occupants safe inside.

Julian Sharpe designed the pod

Julian Sharpe, an aerospace engineer, dreamt up the design while on vacation with his family on the Oregon Coast.

"Lying there at night," he recalled, "one or two blocks back from the beach, listening to the waves and thinking what happens if a tsunami comes now. I've got four kids, my wife, and two Huskies. What do you do with them? And I thought, well I could probably design and build something to jump into."

The Survival Capsule was the result.

"Basically it's a shell that separates the human body from what essentially is a human liquidizer," Sharpe said.

"What the tsunami and the churning water does to the human body is horrific. Nobody deserves to die in that kind of environment."

'You can't run from nature'

The Survival Capsule has been bought in several countries — primarily Japan — but Johnson is the first North American customer.

She said she bought the pod so that if a tsunami hits, her children won't rush to the affected area trying to save her.

"I have adult children and I do not want them coming to get me in the face of flooding and tsunami, she said. "And so maybe I won't make it, but I'm going to make sure my son is by not having him come."

"The way I see it," she said, "as long as you have a capsule like I have, you have a shot."

"I've spoken with some of the emergency preparedness folks and they say 'Why would you live there?'"

"Where will we go where we're safe from anything that nature can deliver to us?" 

"California is gorgeous. They are having wildfires now. You know, Florida: hurricanes. Midwest: tornadoes." 

"You can't run from nature."

The view from inside the Survival Capsule.

Saving children's lives

For many communities, earthquakes are a bigger concern than tsunamis. Despite more than a decade of seismic improvements in B.C., there are still more than 100 old school buildings that are vulnerable.

At St. Patrick's Catholic school in Victoria, parents and staff decided to adopt two technological adaptations to improve safety before the building was fixed.

The first was to sign on to an early-earthquake-warning system.

The system is tied into a network of sensors that can detect the first wave of an earthquake and trigger alarms a few seconds, or even as much as a minute, before the shaking starts. That would buy students enough time to dive under their desks before any damage occurs.

But normal desks could be crushed if the whole building collapsed, so St. Patrick's purchased specially reinforced steel desks that are designed to hold the weight of a building above them.

St. Patrick's has since strengthened the school building, but has decided to keep the desks as an added precaution.

It'll never happen

Adaptations like this, however, are still the exception rather than the rule.

Environmental psychologist Robert Gifford, at the University of Victoria, studies emergency preparedness, and has identified some of the main differences between people who take precautions and those who do not.

The people who prepare, he said, are optimistic and have a sense of control over their lives.

They also have a sense of responsibility, "as opposed to saying 'the government should be protecting me.'"

One other key factor, Gifford said, is social pressure, as people think "I'm expected by the government and my neighbours and my spouse to take control of this situation."

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Gifford said people use some common rationalizations to avoid preparing for a disaster.

He said some are in denial, telling themselves it will not happen to them. Others despair and believe the disaster is beyond their control, while some people put their faith in government to come to the rescue.

We're all going to die anyway

Those are familiar themes to Doug Dougherty in Seaside, Oregon. He's spent 25 years as a teacher, principal, and school superintendent worrying about the students and staff in one of the most vulnerable communities in North America.

Most of the town is built on sand, in a tsunami-inundation zone, and separated from high ground by one or two rivers.

The bridges are expected to collapse in a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, and so are the schools.

Dougherty commissioned studies of tsunami risk, initiated escape drills for students, and led a campaign to build new schools uphill on the outskirts of town. But he could not convince enough taxpayers that it was worth paying $130 million to move the schools to high ground.

"I had a large portion of the community," he recalled, "that would say 'Well I've lived here all my life and I`ve never seen anything like that before and I just can`t believe it.'"

"And then you'd get those who would say: 'Well we're all going to die anyway.'"

So Dougherty went back to the drawing board: cutting costs and negotiating with a forest company that eventually donated land. He also convinced more Seaside residents that it was worth spending a little less than $100 million to move the schools to safety.

In 2016, a majority of Seaside residents voted in favour of building new schools on higher ground. Dougherty is now retired and working on the project as a volunteer, and he hopes to see students in the new schools by 2020.

Listen to the full audio near the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

Gregor Craigie was in conversation with The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath and the CBC's Gregor Craigie.


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