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California’s North Coast Counties Ready for ‘Our Katrina’ with Tsunami Drill

Because it can happen here — and has — emergency officials want to see more awareness, preparation

Noozhawk’s note: Saturday’s tsunami swell passed through Santa Barbara largely without incident, but it highlights the risk that all California coastal communities bear. More than once, in fact, the North Coast has experienced a tsunami’s destructive wrath. This article is republished with permission from Emergency Management magazine.

[Noozhawk’s note: Legal counsel has contacted Noozhawk and objected to the use of a generic term referring to a reverse notification call through the 9-1-1 system, claiming the term violates its client’s trademark. This article has been updated to remove the “offending” term.]

It’s not if one will hit, but when. And when it does, California’s North Coast communities will be ready.

Three rural, coastal counties — Del Norte, Humboldt and Mendocino — have taken the national lead in preparing their residents for what many call the “big one” — a tsunami created by a fierce earthquake.

“They’re dangerous beasts and can come from earthquakes thousands of miles away or from an earthquake at your doorstep,” said Troy Nicolini, warning coordinator meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Eureka.

“This is our biggest thing, and if we prepare people for this, we’re preparing them for everything else — this is our (Hurricane) Katrina, really.”

Nicolini, a Humboldt County resident, has seen the effects of the natural disaster that literally translates to “harbor wave” in Japanese. But he’s more interested in educating the public and ensuring that people know how to respond when one strikes.

“We’ve got the biggest possible tsunami with the shortest arrival time,” he said.

Tsunamis have always been a threat to the West Coast, as the Cascadia Subduction Zone runs off the Pacific Northwest coast. But it wasn’t until the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit Indonesia that U.S. officials started paying more attention to the threats.

Today, California’s three most northern coastal counties are considered “tsunami ready.” Later this month, all three will be preparing residents for the natural disaster that bears little warning and sometimes devastating results.

March 24 will mark the area’s third tsunami warning communications test and what officials believe is the largest “live code” evacuation drill in U.S. history. Starting with a “warning” from the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center that will be distributed across the country, the rural counties will use technologies such as reverse notification calls through the 9-1-1 system, the emergency alert system (on TV and radio stations), tsunami sirens and even airplanes with speakerphones to warn beach-goers of the impending “threat.” Those same warning systems would be used in a real emergency, so making sure they’re in working order is a priority, as is constantly educating the public.

“It’s not a trivial feat to do,” Nicolini said. “We want to make sure it works for a real event.”

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Tsunami warning signs are posted along beaches throughout California to alert people to the potential danger.

And that real event could occur any time, said Cindi Preller, a geologist with the Tsunami Warning Center, which is charged with issuing warnings for the continental United States. Given the history of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a massive earthquake and possible tsunami are right around the corner. Saturday’s tsunami swell in Southern California was the result of a magnitude-8.8 quake in Chile, just hours earlier and thousands of miles away.

“I can’t tell you when it will happen, but I can tell you it will happen, so it behooves us to mitigate our hazard,” said Dan Larkin, head of Humboldt County’s Office of Emergency Services.

“The challenge is notifying the public ahead of time that it’s a test and not the real thing.”

The last time the Cascadia Subduction Zone was hit was in 1700, Preller said, noting that the fault’s recurrence rate is every 300 to 400 years. “So we’re due,” she said.

But the fault isn’t the only concern for North Coast residents. Crescent City, the only incorporated community in Del Norte County, knows all too well that the epicenter of an earthquake doesn’t have to be nearby to create a tsunami. It could be as far away as Alaska or Japan to rattle the ocean floor and send waves or surges its way.

In November 2006, a series of small tidal surges caused by an earthquake off Japan’s coast, wrecked parts of the small seaside town’s harbor and several boats. There were no deaths or injuries, as Crescent City saw after the 1964 Alaska Earthquake, also known as the Good Friday Earthquake, but it shook nerves and caused millions of dollars in damage.

But several hours after Anchorage, Alaska, was hit with a magnitude-9.2 quake on March 27, 1964, many of Crescent City’s structures and some inhabitants were wiped out by four waves that pummeled the town. It was the largest earthquake ever recorded in North America and some longtime residents say Crescent City has never fully recovered.

While North Coast counties seem to have taken the lead in preparing for the worst-case scenario, the hope is that more California coastal counties and at-risk states will join in the preparation.

“We’ve done our homework,” said Jim Goltz, manager of California Emergency Management Agency’s Earthquake and Tsunami Program. “The biggest challenge now is adding more counties.”

— Karen Wilkinson is a writer with Emergency Management magazine. This article republished with permission.

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