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Siren Song

September 6, 2012
by Oakley Brooks
Two people sitting in front of a car

A geologist crusades to help people survive a tsunami.

For the last 14 years, Lori Dengler ’68, M.A. ’73, Ph.D. ’79, co-chair of the geology department at Humboldt State University, has traveled the globe in the wake of devastating tsunamis to collect survival tales. These are the stories of clever children clearing beaches of tourists before a tsunami or communities recalling ancient folktales that instruct them to seek higher ground. So far she’s written a hefty stack of scientific papers and reports on her findings.

But Dengler’s truly important contribution is outside the academic arena: She uses her collected tales to incite her own community to protect itself from tsunamis. California’s northern three counties are threatened by the offshore Cascadia Fault, which delivers only once every few centuries but is now long overdue and could send towering waves to shore in as little as ten minutes after a quake.

On a recent trip to the disaster zone left by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, she realized just how difficult it can be to get people to do the right thing. “I came back from Japan in deep despair,” said Dengler, who is 65 and looks the consummate aging hippie in wire-rimmed glasses and a braided ponytail. “People had plenty of time [to escape]!” Instead of fleeing, people “tuned out tsunami sirens, cell phone alerts, loudspeakers, and then left safe places and drove back toward the water into low-lying areas,” to collect house deeds or jewelry or family in the 20 minutes to one hour between the earthquake and the tsunami’s arrival. “It really opens your eyes to the difference between drills and the real thing. There is just no simple answer to getting people to do the right thing, besides planting a chip in their brains.”

Tsunamis most often form when an earthquake on the ocean floor displaces the water above it, sending waves to the surface. The size of the waves depends on the strength of the earthquake and its depth below the ocean floor. A massive quake like Tohoku’s requires two acts of survival from coastal residents—riding out the earthquake and then fleeing to higher ground ahead of the tsunami.

Today, California spends about $1 million a year on tsunami education and outreach—an all-time high boosted by federal funds allocated since 2009. But it’s not enough, says Dengler, who arrived in Arcata in 1979 with a Berkeley doctorate in geophysics. She and her colleagues began to unravel the 700-mile-long Cascadia Fault’s history—a whopping quake of at least magnitude 8 on average every 500 years. The most recent large event, in 1700, sent deadly tsunamis as far as Japan. When the fault rumbled forebodingly near its southern terminus at Cape Mendocino in April 1992, Dengler formed her mission: to get people to care about a rare event that would devastate the area—but when, no one could predict.

She consulted one of the nation’s leading disaster sociologists, Dennis Mileti, who told her that the best way to motivate people to prepare for rare disaster events is to raise community knowledge and then use peer pressure to spur action.

Dengler found her own way of sparking community conversations by telling her global stories and Native American tales of survival from the last great Cascadia quake, and turning to her oft-copied layman’s guidebook published by Humboldt State’s earthquake education center, Living On Shaky Ground. “Stories are what get people’s attention,” she says. “That’s what the Bible does. It tells stories and in each story is a lesson.”

In preaching her gospel, Dengler has also gone far beyond standard disaster education. She has allied with drama companies to re-enact disaster scenarios. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, she convinced a former Humboldt State undergraduate to write a symphony capturing the power of tsunami wave inundation—a work that eventually played at the Eureka Symphony. And when former-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived at a debriefing conference after a 6.5 temblor in January 2010, Dengler charmed him into letting her say a few words to the media.

“Lori is getting people talking and that’s how knowledge diffuses in a culture,” says Dennis Mileti.

Through surveys, Dengler has found the community is catching on to tsunami danger. More residents are preparing for earthquakes by securing water heaters and bolting down their foundations. Interest has only grown since the Tohoku tsunami, which wrecked boats in Crescent City and carried one onlooker to his death at the mouth of the Klamath River. All her effort has earned Dengler numerous awards. Nevertheless, given how people reacted in Japan, she admits that “there are times when I don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere at all.”

On a late summer afternoon, Dengler, equipped with a backpack, strides through the Humboldt County Fair, past the whirling Ring of Fire thrill ride and the fried sweet aroma wafting from the funnel cake booth, and into an aluminum warehouse, where she and student volunteers have set up shop. Fairgoers shuffle through with beer and popcorn to gaze at county maps showing tsunami zones, flip through copies of her book, and watch a documentary about the earthquake of 1700.

Dengler rolls up her sleeves and, in an upbeat, authoritative tone, explains the physics of tsunamis with the aid of a plexi-glass box she tips to form waves. A sand-filled bucket simulates earthquakes. Passersby cautiously stick pushpins into the local map she’s mounted on a board to mark their houses in relation to the tsunami zone.

When a man worries aloud about his office building—reinforced but in the flood zone—she says, “Look, you can just go to the upper floors. All your colleagues up and down the state will know you’re there. You’ll be fine.”

Next a mustachioed fisherman sidles up to ask what he should do if he’s in a skiff in the ocean when an earthquake strikes. “Go to deep water,” Dengler says, citing tales of fishermen in Papua New Guinea who survived a tsunami offshore while their villages were wrecked.

“OK. But what if I’m standing way out on the jetty at the mouth [of Arcata Bay]. I guess there’s no chance, right?” he asks with a resigned look.

Dengler doesn’t miss a beat. “When I’m out there, I pick my tree—there are some cedars out there that you can climb.”

The fisherman’s eyes go wide. It’s not clear whether it’s because he’s envisioning her picking her way up through cedar branches after a tremendous earthquake, or whether it’s because she has an answer for everything, even in a seemingly hopeless scenario.

Of course, Dengler will only know if her work has paid off in the aftermath of a tsunami, which may not happen in her lifetime. But one thing is clear. She’s not giving up. “I’m more convinced than ever about the power of one-on-one conversations.”

Oakley Brooks is an Oregon-based journalist and the author of Tsunami Alert (Marshall Cavendish Editions; 2011).
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