Asia tsunami raises concern for preparedness on the Peninsula

<I>CHRIS NIELSEN photo</I><BR>Pacific County Enhanced 911 and Emergency Management Coordinator Stephanie Fritts explains some of the vital information contained in her agency's tsunami survival brochure last week at the Cranberry approach.

More warning sirens, scheduled drills needed say local officialsPENINSULA - In light of Asia's recent tsunami and subsequent fatalities now estimated at a staggering 155,000, it is time for communities on the Peninsula to take the threat of a tsunami more seriously, according to leading tsunami experts and scientists.

Brian Atwater, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey at the University of Washington in Seattle, said a tsunami along the Washington coast is always a possibility, even the likes of the one which just struck Asia. Atwater was featured in the 1997 National Geographic movie "Killer Wave, Power of the Tsunami."

Atwater pointed out that the Peninsula lies above a 700-mile-long fault called the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which runs from British Columbia all the way down to northern California. Underneath this fault are tectonic plates which could shift abruptly at any moment, causing a break in the fault, and an ensuing earthquake and tsunami.

"The odds most recently computed are between 5 and 10 percent that in the next 30 years this fault will produce an earthquake of magnitude 8 or larger," warned Atwater. "As far as the United States is concerned, the area most likely to see a tsunami is the area along this fault."

According to geologist Tom Horning, owner of Horning Geosciences in Seaside, Ore., a tsunami reached the Washington coast in 1964, which did some damage in communities such as Copalis. This tsunami was created as a result of a whopping 9.2 magnitude earthquake off the Alaska coast.

"Once per decade, or every 25 years, there will be an earthquake generated that can cause a tsunami that can cross the ocean," said Horning. "Keeping in mind 1964, I would say we are overdue for an overseas tsunami, but not larger than the one in 1964. That one is considered the largest that can be expected."

Despite the recent tsunami in Asia, as well as the threat pointed out by Atwater and Horning, there appears to be some complacency on the Peninsula, marked by no regularly scheduled tsunami warning drills or siren tests being performed by any community or entity, including communities such as Long Beach, Ilwaco and Ocean Park.

In addition, entities such as the Ocean Beach School District, which has a tsunami evacuation plan in place, has not held a district-wide evacuation drill in at least two years, according to school district superintendent Tom Lockyer. The school district's evacuation plan is currently complicated by its ongoing construction at Long Beach Elementary and Ocean Park Elementary, which is not expected to be fully completed until early 2006.

"Without a doubt we need to do more drills for tsunamis," said Lockyer, who went on to say that he is planning on bringing up the issue of evacuation drills at a Jan. 10 special school board meeting.

Just three tsunami warning sirensThe city of Long Beach has a warning siren at City Hall which is most commonly used to call in emergency personnel in the event of a fire or other local emergency, and lasts for a minute and a half. This very same siren also doubles as a tsunami warning siren, and in the event of a tsunami it would sound continuously for 15 minutes. This siren has an estimated radius of only one-half mile, which can increase or decrease depending on weather conditions. When sounded for a tsunami, the tone would be different than that normally heard.

"For a tsunami warning, it sounds like an old air raid siren," said Long Beach Financial Director David Glasson. "The tone goes up to the highest pitch and stays there."

Glasson said he does not recall the last time the tsunami siren was tested, and that there is not a schedule in place to test it. He went on to say that with the current devastation in Asia, it would be a good time in the near future to test it again. In the event the siren would be tested, a notice would appear in the newspaper to give people advance warning. The normal duration of such a test is three minutes.

According to Ilwaco Fire Department Fire Chief Tom Williams, there is a siren at the Ilwaco fire station, which also has the same limited radius as the one in Long Beach. He said this siren would also sound a continuous tone in the event of a tsunami, although it would have to be manually operated in order to maintain a constant tone.

The only other warning siren on the Peninsula is located in Ocean Park at the Pacific County Fire District No. 1 fire station. This siren also has a limited radius of approximately 1/2 mile, which Fire Chief Thomas O'Donohue describes as inadequate.

"It is just that: inadequate," he said. "In Ocean Park it's inadequate, and you can logically apply this to the entire Peninsula, where there are only three sirens."

O'Donohue said communities of the Peninsula need to look into a tsunami warning siren system similar to that which is in place in Ocean Shores - a system he described as "a very adequate system that goes up the entire coastline."

But O'Donohue was quick to point out that such a system can cost millions, and that funding is simply not available locally. He said that until either state or federal funding is made available to upgrade the local tsunami warning sirens, there should be coordinated testing of the existing three sirens on the Peninsula. This same sentiment was also expressed by Williams, who said he would also like to see coordinated evacuation drills, so that local residents will know what to expect in the event of a real tsunami.

County's telephonic warning systemDespite the lack of Peninsula-wide tsunami warning sirens, there is a telephonic warning system fully in place called the Pacific County Notification Network. This system is operated through the Pacific County Emergency Management Agency, which is a division of the Pacific County Sheriff's Office. In the event of a tsunami, a county official would issue a recorded message that would be delivered to all telephones in the county, including businesses and homes.

According to Pacific County E911and Emergency Management Coordinator Stephanie Fritts, this system is one which would only be useful in the event that there is adequate advance warning of a tsunami. She said there is a definite distinction between a tsunami that is caused by a local offshore earthquake, and one which is generated by an earthquake in distant areas such as Japan or off the Alaska coastline.

If a local offshore earthquake occurred, Peninsula residents would feel it immediately, and when this takes place, there would not be time to warn residents using the telephonic warning system. She said what experts such as Atwater also say, that from the time the local earthquake is felt, there is only about 15 minutes before a tsunami hits the Peninsula. And because of the fact there is water on both sides of the Peninsula, water inundation would not only be seen on the ocean side, but on the Willapa Bay side as well.

"If you're on the Long Beach Peninsula and you feel the ground shake, it means there has been a local earthquake," she said. "Anytime you feel the ground shake, it is a time to be concerned, and you should seek higher ground immediately."

Fritts said there are two tsunami warning centers for the Pacific Ocean. One is in Palmer, Alaska, and the other is in Hawaii. They are set up to look for earthquakes, and utilize seismic information to evaluate the situation to determine the epicenter and magnitude. She said these warning centers can take as long as 5 to 10 minutes to report their findings to entities such as the National Weather Service.

"And that takes 5 to 10 minutes off our time to warn people," said Fritts. "This means we wouldn't have time to warn people by phone. If an earthquake hits at noon, and we find out it was an offshore quake at 12:07, the tsunami will arrive by 12:15, and we just lost half of our evacuation time. There would not be time to warn people telephonically or by using the local fire departments and police offices."

According to experts such as Atwater, the normal amount of time that can be expected between an earthquake in Alaska and a tsunami here is five hours. This increases to 10 hours in the event an earthquake takes place near Japan.

A test of the county's telephonic warning system was performed in the spring of 2004 in Ocean Park, where "we chose a half-mile-wide radius of the intersection of Vernon and Bay," said Fritts. A 30-second message was sent out. At that same time, the system was also tested in Long Beach, Seaview, Ilwaco, Chinook, Naselle, Raymond and South Bend. Fritts said that in some areas it tested well, but in others the test was not satisfactory.

In Long Beach, Ilwaco, Ocean Park, and areas where there are larger central phone company offices, the warnings seemed to work fine. But in smaller communities, such as Naselle, Fritts said there were some "bottlenecks," which she attributed to smaller phone company offices. As a result, she said that a different calling strategy was set up, but one which was slower than she was 100 percent happy with. Despite the bottlenecks, the county's telephonic system is one which O'Donohue praised, and said it is "a fantastic, premium device that puts us ahead of many communities prone to natural disasters."

According to Fritts, even with the telephonic warning system in place, the county still relies heavily on the local fire departments and law enforcement agencies if there is a distant-source tsunami.

"What we recognize is that the telephonic warning system does not reach everybody, such as vacation homes that do not have phones," she said. "It also does not reach cell phones."

In the event of a distant-source tsunami, local fire departments and law enforcement agencies would go through neighborhoods and use PA (public announcement) systems on their vehicles to warn people to seek higher ground or to evacuate the Peninsula if necessary. According to O'Donohue, a focus would be made initially on neighborhoods with the highest density and if time permitted warn other areas. Also, fire department personnel would be busy moving vital rescue equipment to higher ground, which would be invaluable for rescue operations and firefighting in the aftermath of a tsunami.

NOAA radio deemed invaluableAccording to Fritts, one of the best ways to stay abreast of the threat of a tsunami is by having a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather band radio.

There are a wide variety of NOAA radios, ranging from smaller handheld models which sell for as little as $25, and range up to around $80 for larger desk type units. Fritts said she prefers units which have specific area messaging and coding, which means that a home owner or citizen has the option to hear warnings for a specific area. A number of local retailers sell NOAA radios, including Radio Shack, Dennis Company and Jack's Country Store.

According to Lockyer, every building in the Ocean Beach School District has a NOAA radio in place. This includes Hilltop Elementary, Long Beach Elementary and Ilwaco High School. He said he was not sure if one was in place at the temporary location for Tlohon-nipts Alternative High School.

"The NOAA weather radio system, I believe, is one of the best warning systems for the average citizen," said Fritts. "The average citizen needs to take some responsibility to stay informed, and this includes purchasing, installing and becoming familiar with NOAA weather radio."

Fritts said the Pacific County Emergency Management Agency gave approximately 50 NOAA weather radios to public facilities in Pacific County 18 months ago through a grant from the National Tsunami Mitigation Program. The radios were given to schools, hospitals, nursing homes - essentially anywhere it was anticipated large groups of people would be at one location.

Preparedness, education paramountOne of the best ways to escape and survive a tsunami is through self-education and preparedness, according to Fritts, which is why she and her organization spent so much time and effort to create and distribute a brochure about tsunamis. An estimated 100,000 of these brochures were distributed across Pacific County three to four years ago. In this brochure is vital information, including evacuation routes and a map of designated high ground congregation areas on the Peninsula.

This brochure can be obtained at Long Beach City Hall and at the Pacific County Fire District No. 1 fire house in Ocean Park. The brochure can also be obtained by calling Fritts at 642-9340, whose office will mail one out. The information in the brochure is also available online via the county's website at:

"We live in an area like any other in the U.S.," said Fritts. "Kansas has a tornado hazard; Florida has a hurricane hazard. We are no different than anywhere else. We just have to be prepared."

In light of events of the tsunami which hit Asia, Fritts said it has made her realize it is an opportunity for public education. She said that discussions are ongoing for holding tsunami education classes in the Ocean Park area this spring. Also, she said she is working on new hazard and evacuation maps for each individual community and area of the county, including the Peninsula. Fritts said she is also working on obtaining additional traffic modeling and evacuation scenario data, as well as more inundation modeling studies.

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