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Tsunami Preparedness Week: Spotlight on Sea Grant Extension Agent Pat Corcoran

Extension Coastal Hazards Outreach Specialist at Oregon Sea Grant

Patrick Corcoran is a coastal natural hazards specialist based in Astoria, OR. His goal is to help coastal communities become more resilient to natural hazards. Patrick engages university researchers and coastal residents in collaborative research and shared learning about the nature of coastal natural hazards; helps communities identify their vulnerability to hazards; and connects local people with data and decision support tools designed to help communities adapt to coastal hazards. Patrick’s primary areas of work are tsunami preparedness, coastal storms and shoreline change.


It’s Tsunami Awareness Week, what is the one thing everyone needs to know about tsunamis?

They can happen unexpectedly. Whenever visiting the ocean shore, be prepared to move to high ground if you experience an earthquake. Also important to know, is the earthquake and tsunami experience is different depending on where you are in the world. In the Pacific Northwest of the USA, our natural warning for a big tsunami is a big earthquake. By contrast, in the island countries of the Pacific (or a peninsula like Phuket, Thailand) you may not feel the earthquake due to the nature of the local geology, but experience a tsunami—without a natural warning other than the receding of the shoreline. (This scenario was depicted in the recent movie The Impossible.) So, do a couple minutes of research about the local tsunami risk, and what to do, before you visit coastal zones.

What is something cool you learned while working on tsunami outreach?

Information alone does not change behavior.  I’ve been reminded that people have very different perceptions of risk and risk tolerance; and this greatly influences their preparedness. The disconnect between smart people and smart behavior is most evident when I host physical scientists at the coast (experts in some aspect of the physical science). They may be brilliant in their research, but if they do not scope out the tsunami evacuation route at their research site, or at their local motel, they are not acting brilliant in terms of their personal preparedness. We as humans are neurologically challenged to respond to risks outside of the “fight or flight” response that guided our evolution. In general, the anonymous quote is true: “people don’t change behavior when they see the light, only when they feel the heat.”

How did you get involved with Sea Grant? When did you join Sea Grant?

I was a community development specialist with the “terrestrial” Extension Service from 1987 – 1993. In 1993, I joined the Sea Grant program area and continued my work with colleagues in coastal community development, watershed restoration, and public issues education.

What drove you to work on coastal hazards outreach?

After many years working for Extension and Sea Grant based in the Willamette Valley, I moved to the Oregon coast to be the Outreach Coordinator for the NOAA Coastal Storms Program at the Mouth of the Columbia River 2003-2006. This focused my efforts on chronic hazards like storms and flooding. In 2004, the Sumatran earthquake and Indonesian tsunamis occurred and my focus shifted to our local catastrophic hazard the Cascadia Subduction Zone. I changed from having an intellectual understanding of what “a tsunami” was, to a visual and visceral understanding based on what I saw. I also went from a “visitor” to the coast to a “resident.” I cannot live here knowing what I know and NOT do hazards outreach.

What is your favorite part about being a Sea Grant Extension agent?

My favorite part is building relationships with people in coastal communities. This allows me to better judge when a teachable moment arises, and also what level of technical information to provide. My observation is that subject matter experts approach community outreach by asking themselves: “what is all of the relevant information I can tell people related to this topic?” Extension agents tend to ask themselves: “What is the least amount of information I can tell people for them to understand the essential message?”

What is the biggest challenge you face at your job?

As an educator, it is trying to educate people to change their behavior in significant ways on a daily basis to prepare for an event that they have never experienced–nor their parent, nor grandparents, nor great grandparents.  As an individual, it is the emotional and spiritual weight associated with informing people that they live in a place that repeatedly gets what Japan got in 2011. No population on the planet has had such a massive recurring natural hazard “drop into their lap” as we have in the PNW. The scientific consensus has only been since about 1990 that the PNW, in fact, gets large earthquakes and tsunamis. Conveying to families the reality and the gravity of this understanding is tough-very tough.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in science?

Honestly, my career in science happened to me while I was busy making other plans.

What part of your job did you least expect to be doing?

Telling parents that when a large earthquake occurs they need to duck, cover, and hold on; move to high ground; and stay there overnight (because the inundations keep occurring for hours). The message is that parents MUST NOT immediately go find their children. I never expected to be doing this. 

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?

Collapse, by Jared Diamond

And how about a personal favorite book?

Nonfiction: Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond.

Fiction: Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins.

Do you have an outside hobby?

Stand up paddle boarding is my latest outdoor obsession.

What surprised you most about working at Sea Grant?

Our diversity. The circumstances of each region are very different, and our Sea Grant programs reflect this. Even within the area of chronic coastal hazards. A dramatic example of this is that Oregon is projected to have minimal SLR or even sea level rise (!) in the coming decades—due to plate tectonics and iso-static rebound from previous glaciations. Despite our diversity of circumstances, I’m impressed by the universal commitment of Sea Grant faculty to develop among local stakeholders a rational context with which to interpret the latest “best available science.”


Check out our whole Tsunami Preparedness Week Profile Series:


Spotlight on Jamie Mooney

Spotlight on Dr. Kwok Fai Cheung

Spotlight on Dr. Ian Miller


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