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Tsunami experts to help Pacific County prepare

Emergency managers learn from Jan. 23 tsunami scare

By AMY NILE

anile@chinookobserver.com

Published on March 27, 2018 4:55PM

FILE PHOTOLocal and state authorities plan April workshops to aid coastal residents in making tsunami-survival plans.

FILE PHOTOLocal and state authorities plan April workshops to aid coastal residents in making tsunami-survival plans.

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PACIFIC COUNTY — Tsunami and earthquake experts are coming to help people here get ready to survive a disaster.

Pacific County Emergency Management Director Scott McDougall is expecting a lot of interest after the tsunami watch on Jan. 23. Many coastal residents awoke to the first of four emergency-alert calls after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit the Gulf of Alaska at 1:31 a.m. It triggered tsunami watches and warnings along the West Coast.

“Based upon reaction to the event on Jan. 23, we still have lots of work to do to ensure our community is aware and prepared,” McDougall said in a news release.

On April 10 his agency is scheduled to join experts with the National Weather Service, the University of Washington, and the state Emergency Management Division and Department of Natural Resources Geological Survey for two presentations about tsunami preparedness, hazards and alerts.

The first 90-minute talk is set for 1 p.m. in Raymond at the Timberland Library, 507 Duryea St. The other is scheduled for 7 p.m. in Ilwaco at the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum, 115 Lake St. SE.


Glitches fixed, lessons learned


The recent tsunami watch revealed a problem with the county notification system, McDougall said. People were required to opt-in for weather alerts. But, as many as 2,000 who were signed up did not realize they had to check an extra box get phone calls so they didn’t get the warnings about the potential tsunami threat. Many slept through it.

The notification glitch was fixed the next day, McDougall said.

For some who were awake, the lack of official information caused anxiety and alarm, according to the county’s Jan. 26 post-watch report. It could have left people without enough time to evacuate.

The county counts the miss a “serious breach of the public trust,” the assessment said.

Emergency managers also acknowledged they didn’t get timely updates to the public during the watch. That’s because the National Tsunami Warning Center wasn’t providing much information to local agencies, according to the report.

McDougall said he should have assigned a staffer to release the few details that were available, instead of relying on a Facebook page run by a group that includes the retired emergency management director. He plans to do so in the future.

After the watch was canceled, people didn’t get a call to let them know they were safe. Next time, the county plans to send a notification out after the threat has passed, McDougall said.


Near and far


If an earthquake strikes nearby, there might be no warning. People on the Peninsula should not wait. Once the ground stops shaking, they’re expected to have at least 15 minutes to get to high ground before the towering waves and flooding come, according to experts and emergency managers.

Evacuation maps are available at pacificcountysheriff.com/plans. Emergency managers recommend people practice walking their route. Driving will likely be too dangerous after an earthquake due to damage and debris.

If the earthquake hits someplace far away, such as the one in Alaska, people will likely get a warning a few hours before the water comes, McDougall said.

The tsunami sirens will not sound during a watch. If the threat is more imminent and an advisory or warning is in place, the alarms will wail for three minutes each time they go off. A message might follow.

The county now has 22 of the 69 tsunami sirens in the state. The National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program is paying for another one to go in at the east-end fire station in South Bend.


Don’t rely on sirens alone


McDougall urges people to have more than one way of getting emergency information. He recommends having a NOAA Weather Radio, which broadcasts information directly from the nearest National Weather Service office.

People can also tune into local radio stations for tsunami information during emergencies. McDougall plans to provide updates to more than a dozen broadcasters, such as KMUN, 91.9 FM on the Peninsula and KLMY, 99.7 FM throughout the county.

People can sign up to get phone calls with serious weather alerts at tinyurl.com/y7etdxny. McDougall said they can also check for news during emergencies on the agency Facebook page, facebook.com/PCEMA, or by following @PCEOCNews on Twitter. To receive the information via text, send “followPCEOCNews” to 40404.


Ready or not


Being informed and prepared can save lives. The National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program is providing money this year for education to help people get ready to fend for themselves for at least two weeks in the aftermath of a disaster.

Grants from the federal program are also paying for evacuation and hazard signs in threatened areas along Washington’s coast, new tsunami studies and a guide for building evacuation shelters to help keep people safe.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing $120,000 to Pacific County Fire District 1 for modeling and design work on a potential site. It could help the district get a larger grant to build an tsunami shelter in the future.

The city of Long Beach abandoned work late last year on what would have been the first shelter of its kind in North America.

Officials scrapped the project after a new scientific study showed the structure would need to be 62.4 feet above average high tide to keep people safe during a worst-case emergency. That’s almost twice as tall as the $4 million berm the city was planning to build behind Long Beach Elementary School.

City Administrator David Glasson and McDougall estimate it would take at least 30 evacuation berms, towers and buildings to help keep the county’s year-round population of about 20,500 plus its seasonal swell of people out of harm’s way during a tsunami.



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