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If This Had Been an Actual Tsunami ...

Local agencies' responses varied widely after Tuesday's quake triggered a warning.

June 16, 2005|Jia-Rui Chong and Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writers

California's first tsunami warning in more than a decade triggered an uneven response in coastal communities up and down the state, with some agencies rushing to evacuate beaches and others deciding not to warn the public at all.

On Wednesday, as officials assessed the way they had handled the emergency, there was general agreement that much more needed to be done.

"I don't think all the agencies got an A-plus on their response," said Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who has asked for a report on how emergency teams handled the tsunami warning. "We're lucky we just had a trial run."

The tsunami alert, issued by the National Weather Service after a 7.2 magnitude quake struck off the coast of Northern California on Tuesday night, trickled down to local emergency officials in inconsistent ways.

Many received teletype messages from the state, but in some cases local authorities got the notices just as the wave was projected to hit. Some officials said they learned about the alert by watching television or receiving calls from panicked residents who had heard about the alert on TV.

The warning, the highest possible alert from the federal government, prompted confusion at some police departments. In Santa Monica, officials thought it was "just informational, only a bulletin," said Police Sgt. Jeff Wiles. Assuming that they would receive an update if the situation became more serious, city officials decided not to open their emergency operations center.

In Huntington Beach, the police watch commander on duty had trouble interpreting the bulletins and wasn't sure whether a tsunami warning was actually in effect. "They were confusing to read through," said Lt. Craig Junginger. "It talks about wind variables and knots and waves."

The warning stated that communities along the Pacific Ocean from British Columbia to the Mexican border should brace for a possible tsunami and that people along the beach should move to higher ground. The message gave approximate times over several hours at which a tsunami, if triggered by the quake, would strike various spots along the California coast. The state subsequently sent out its own warnings.

But the warning system leaves it up to local agencies to decide what to do next. And there was a great range of responses.

In places such as San Diego, Newport Beach and Seal Beach, lifeguards and police officers raced to beaches to clear people off the sand. But they allowed people in homes and businesses along the beach to remain.

In many other cities, including Half Moon Bay -- south of San Francisco -- and Long Beach, officials decided to monitor the situation and not take any action at the beaches.

Lon Waxstein, commander in the Half Moon Bay Police Department, said he didn't think there was reason for panic.

"People need to get a grip," he said. "They are getting way, way worried on something that has only happened once in recent history to the whole continental United States. But we have floods, we have wildfires, we have plane crashes -- those happen more than a tsunami."

The warnings originated from the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, a National Weather Service office in Palmer, Alaska.

Immediately after sensors in the Pacific Ocean picked up the quake at 7:51 p.m., the center's "seismic processing software" determined that the shaking exceeded 3.0 on the Richter scale and paged the scientists at the center, said Laura Furgione, regional director for the weather service in Alaska.

The message told the scientists that there was an earthquake 90 miles off Eureka and the preliminary magnitude was 7.4.

Scientists sent out an alert at 7:56 p.m.

The message appeared immediately on national weather websites, was wired to media outlets, went by satellite to emergency managers' computers and was broadcast by speaker phone on a network developed for homeland security.

Policy dictates a warning if the underwater earthquake is 7.0 or stronger, a threshold based on historical tsunami data, Furgione said.

There was no time to debate whether a warning was necessary, she said, because the center's projections showed that a wave could hit Crescent City within 40 minutes of the temblor and reach San Francisco about 50 minutes later.

"We don't have time not to issue the warning," she said. "It's better to get the information out to the public and to the emergency managers so they can put an evacuation mechanism in place," she said.

The 24-hour warning center at California's Office of Emergency Services received the message on its computer at 7:57 p.m., said spokesman Eric Lamoureux.

Staff members posted the notice on their website and forwarded a teletype message to local agencies on the Law Enforcement Telecommunication System. An automated phone message went out to all California coastal counties. Staff members then called each of those counties to confirm that they had received the message.

Lamoureux said all of this took approximately 7 minutes.

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