PENINSULA — Sobering, unfathomable, fragile, frightening: these are some of the emotions Long Beach Peninsula residents felt as they watched in disbelief in the wee hours of Friday, March 11 the destruction along Japan’s coastline from an 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami. 

Neighbors helping neighbors, loved ones phone calls across the country, school officials as disaster relief specialists, and professionals doing their jobs with care were among the responses.

But always there were the stark, grave photographs of Japan: the video of muddy, trash-strewn water destroying entire towns and the people who had lived there. And we knew, “That could be us.” 

A sleepless night led to a wakeup call. According Pacific County Emergency Management, a series of waves from one to 10 feet was expected to strike the Peninsula starting about 7:15 a.m. Friday. The ball was in our court.

“There wasn’t much of a wave or surge. I got a call about midnight and by 3 a.m. people were coming by the station (in Ocean Park) and asking what to do,” Fire District No. 1 Chief Jacob Brundage said. In fact, the biggest physical impacts from the Japanese quake weren’t observed locally until Friday afternoon, when unusual tidal surges made for dangerous conditions within Willapa Bay.

“We had a lot of calls to find out when it was OK to come back to their homes all the way to 10 a.m.,” Brundage said. “We were here to provide assistance. There were about a dozen requests for help, but we ended up only transporting three people to an evacuation center at Hilltop School in Ilwaco, mainly because they didn’t want to leave their pets and we couldn’t transport animals. We couldn’t force people to leave their homes and no one was sure what to do.” 

“We certainly don’t want to cry wolf,” Sheriff Scott Johnson said of the decision to advise residents to head for higher ground. “We just have to hope we’re doing the right thing based on our information. We don’t want to be wrong and have people hurt or killed.

“In the last 25-30 years, this is the second time I’ve been involved in an evacuation for this reason,” the sheriff added.

 

Getting ready

The Pacific County Emergency Management Agency was notified late Thursday night that the county was under a tsunami watch, but that status was downgraded to an advisory at 11:15 p.m. An advisory is issued when the threat of a tsunami “may produce strong currents or waves dangerous to those in or near the water.” A warning is for danger and everyone is advised, “run to higher ground, follow emergency instructions.” Commissioner Bud Cuffel cautioned, “If you hear a siren, run like hell for the nearest hill.”

Emergency manager Stephanie Fritts said, “The difference between a watch and an advisory is squishy. A tsunami exists in an advisory but because of currents and coastline symmetry, it may not arrive.”

By 3 a.m., Long Beach Police Chief Flint Wright had activated all the officers in his department and they boxed up all current files and warrants, and immediately began moving the office phones, computers, excess vehicles, guns and ammunition, all extra portables. Within 30 minutes, all the department essentials were moved to high ground so that officers could operate if the big wave hit. 

“We thought it would take three trips to break down our office and take all the essentials out and it only took one,” Wright added. “I was very happy the way it went. From my standpoint and Long Beach Police, I was very impressed. The EOC kept us informed; I thought it went well.”

Wright assigned three officers at the watershed while he and two other officers were on-site at Hilltop and the Black Lake Campus. 

The Washington State Patrol was also out manning local intersections. Barricades were erected on local beach approaches.

When 7:15 a.m. did finally roll around, reporters from the Chinook Observer and Seattle Times were virtually alone on the Long Beach Boardwalk and observed no discernible increase in water level.

Notifications go out … or not

The tsunami siren system was not activated because of the “advisory” alert level. The siren system currently cannot play dynamic messages, only ones pre-recorded so specific information about the event could not have been available anyway. 

The county sheriff’s office activated the telephone emergency warning system at 3 a.m. Friday to advise residents in low-lying areas to move to high ground. A major bottleneck in the alerting process occurred when the county’s reverse 911 system could only make a few hundred telephone calls at a time. A total of 7,499 calls were made between 3 a.m. and 5:15 a.m. 

“Our system can instantly send messages to 9,000 telephones, but the local phone systems became overloaded so we could only send so many at a time,” Fritts explained. “We are looking into meeting with CenturyLink in the near future.”

Of those calls, only 66 percent were successful, while 2,567 did not connect for various reasons, such as the line being busy or no one answering. A second call back was made to those numbers. The message was scripted text-to-speech so some names such as Ilwaco were incorrectly pronounced. 

It is estimated that if the Cascadia Subduction Zone has a major earthquake 100 miles off the coast of Washington and Oregon, people on the Peninsula would have from 15 to 30 minutes to reach high ground instead of the eight hours for March 11’s event. Should the Cascadia quake down power lines, structures, and destroy roads, people would be forced to seek safety on foot.

“The only warning system for a big quake here would be the overwhelming shaking that could last as long as five minutes. If you feel that, go to higher ground immediately,” Fritts said. Japan has by far the most effective tsunami/earthquake detection and warning system in the world, but coastal communities were still totally destroyed. 

Beginning about 11:30 p.m. the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) met and began watching two television newscasts, monitoring the West Coast-Alaska Tsunami Warning and NOAA Weather websites and radio bulletins, and getting information from local ham radio operators. “We got information from everywhere,” Fritts related.

About 8,000 people sought out information at www.chinookobserver.com, where Friday’s traffic was about four times more than average.

Jim Neva of Port of Ilwaco warned boat owners of the possible tsunami. “Luckily there was no perceptible wave action in the port Friday morning,” he said. Tim Martindale worked a 17-hour shift as dispatcher and said the response was “way better” to the tsunami advisory than the 2007 three-day destructive windstorm. Long Beach Mayor Bob Andrew said his crews were typical in that they took care of their families first and then were out most of the night. City records were transported to high ground at the city water plant.

Post-event analysis

Commissioners Cuffel, Jon Kaino, and Lisa Ayers continually complimented the 40-some people who gave reports Monday, March 14 at a meeting in South Bend. Other mayors, police, and fire personnel from Ilwaco, Chinook, Raymond and South Bend and county officials shared similar success stories and offered helpful suggestions. 

The only area of EOC concern was when the “all clear” should be given. Kaino thought that keeping people at shelters too long might discourage them to evacuate during future events, while Fritts said, “A tsunami is a series of waves and not just one big one. There can be waves up to 24 hours later.”

A surge estimated at three to five feet occurred in Willapa Bay at about 4 p.m. Friday. Local crabbers saw their buoys go completely under due to the current and then pop up and head into the wind when the water began to recede. Commercial clammers and others from Nahcotta to Bay Center had to high-tail it to shore and oyster beds were covered with water after being high and dry moments earlier. Near Oysterville, Dan Driscoll witnessed a 14-inch tsunami at about 1:10 p.m. that caused him to cease harvesting.

At 7:30 p.m., nearly 22 hours after the Japan earthquake the EOC issued the all-clear. The official tsunami height at Long Beach was 2.6 feet, but was not noticed on the beaches at 7:15 a.m. because of a receding tide. Many officials at the meeting felt Friday’s advisory was much better than a drill; it was more like a full-on scrimmage. 

Thursday, March 24 “Let’s Talk Tsunami” workshops will be held at Fire District No. 1 in Ocean Park from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and at Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum in Ilwaco from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Routes and assembly areas will be the topic. March 25 at the South County Building on Sandridge Road personal preparedness kits will be discussed. 

To register cell phones or if you did not get a reverse 911 call go to the website  and then click on the “Emergency Management” button. Next click on the green “Emergency Notification System” button on the left and then click on the blue button “Intrado Target Notification” in the center of the page. You may also call 642-9340 to register your land or cell phone number. 

Healthcare providers

Alan Craft, Ocean Beach Hospital’s director of public relations and business development, said that while the facility didn’t have to enact “formal protocols,” there were on-call administrators, doctors and medical staff who prepared for the worst.

“As far as the hospital’s preparation, we train for these things all year long,” Craft said. We had a lot of people in place and ready to enact protocols by 5 or 6, I was posting tweets and paying close attention to what Stephanie Fritts had to say. We had a number of doctors show up early and ready to help; everything went really smoothly. I think a lot of it is based on how you train for these types of scenarios.”

In addition to the emphasis placed on emergency preparedness and continued safety training, Craft said the hospital is also equipped with backup generators and satellite phones.

Up in Long Beach, the DaVita Dialysis clinic was shut down for the day. DaVita clinical social worker Susie Goldsmith reported, “We used our disaster plans, copied the essential patient data we might need and put together ‘flow’ sheets so we could document treatment,” she explained. Then we proceeded to call the patients to advise them that we would dialyze them tomorrow rather than today and that they needed to implement their emergency dialysis diets, pay attention to their food and fluid intake and if they are in any distress to go to the ER.”

After making sure patient charts and the more expensive medications were protected, DaVita staff contacted patients via phone and rescheduled their dialysis appointments for Saturday, which was sufficient so long as patients adhered to their diet and limited their fluid intake.

Goldsmith confirmed, “We learned a lot from this drill. It felt like a great deal of responsibility to be looking after patients reliant on treatment and they rely on us to be there for them. And we were, with pleasure. Our DaVita Disaster Plan was helpful because it provided structure in a really dicey situation. The staff at DaVita is relieved that this crisis is over and we will see our patients tomorrow!”

Should Cascadia unleash yet another “Big One” in our direction as it has every 300 to 600 years in recent geological history, we who choose to live on the coast will need to be prepared to survive.  

— Chinook Observer reporter Amanda Frink and the Seattle Times contributed to this story.

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