The harrowing events of Japan’s earthquake and subsequent tsunami are fresh in the minds of city and county leaders as they work to prepare Santa Barbara County and coastal areas for the threat of their own tsunami.
The Santa Barbara City Council received a report Tuesday from City of Santa Barbara Fire Department officials as well as those from the county Office of Emergency Services. The agencies have been working to get Santa Barbara approved by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a “tsunami ready” city. The city was designated “storm ready” by the NOAA in 2009, and is very close to being designated as prepared for tsunamis by the agency, according to Joe Poire, the city’s fire marshal.
The South Coast’s first reported tsunami occurred in 1812, and there have been a total of eight recorded, Poire said. Two incidents in the past year caused small tidal action in the area, including the Japanese earthquake. The Santa Barbara Harbor experienced several small tsunami swells with the highest at about a foot and a half, but no damage was recorded anywhere in the county. The Chilean earthquake last year also sent small waves to Santa Barbara’s shores.
“The potential is always there,” Poire said.
The city’s inundation map has been redrawn and stretches along the city’s waterfront, reaching Highway 101 as its boundary in some places. The inundation map was designed assuming a nine-meter tsunami, or about 30 feet, Poire said. The Japanese tsunami was a 10-meter tsunami.
Since 2007, the county OES has been involved in the project and is working to conduct public outreach. It will also put up warning signs in the inundation area.
Councilman Randy Rowse asked about plans to get people off the beaches in the case of a tsunami. People flocked to beach areas to watch the small tidal waves that came in earlier this month from the Japanese earthquake.
“We wanted to have as many different evacuation routes as possible,” Fire Chief Andrew DiMizio said, adding that turning roads so that both lanes turn outbound from the beach would be an option.
Councilman Grant House took issue with the map’s area, however. Watching videos of the Japanese tsunami, he said little seemed to stop the wave except some of the freeways in place.
“It seems to me like the freeway itself is the seawall,” House said. “This map doesn’t ring true to me at all.”
He also asked why there wouldn’t be more placement of the signs in the neighborhoods, instead of just at the beaches. He said the Lower Westside neighborhood, currently not included in the inundation map, also would be vulnerable in the case of a large tsunami.
DiMizio said sign placement hadn’t been locked in yet, and Poire said the U.S. Geological Survey had generated most of the data on the inundation area, and that it could be brought back before the City Council for further explanation.
“There’s no hills, no rises,” House said. “It just makes me think this is inaccurate somehow.”
Michael Harris of the Office of Emergency Services said county officials and the U.S. Geological Survey had worked to survey the county up and down the Santa Barbara coast.
“I have no problems with challenging assumptions,” Harris said. “As the science continues to get better, we will likely be evaluating again.”
With the Channel Islands serving as a buffer between larger-scale ocean activity and the city, “the scariest risk would be an earthquake between here and the islands,” Councilman Bendy White said. In that case, there would be just minutes to warn residents, prompting White to ask whether installing sirens would be a possibility.
DiMizio said sirens are being evaluated, and Poire added that a large population on the waterfront may be tourists and not aware that they need to get out of the area if an earthquake hits. Sirens are not required for a community to be deemed tsunami ready.
Harris said that if any earthquake lasts more than 40 seconds and a person is unable to stand up, he or she needs to move to higher ground.
“The people that live in these areas should have one simple rule: ‘Get out of the area,” he said.
Councilman Frank Hotchkiss said the sirens are crucial and would have to be part of the plan.
Rowse agreed, and invited fire officials to test evacuation procedures in a non-emergency situation, such as after the Fourth of July.
“The 101 becomes worthless right away; we’ve all seen that during wildfires,” Rowse said.
“If we just rely on sirens after an earthquake, we’re all in trouble,” Mayor Helene Schneider said, adding that the education component is crucial.