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OCEAN OF POSSIBILITIES

Tsunami! Now What?

June 25, 2005

Californians reacted with sympathy and horror to the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 150,000 people in December but, naturally enough in a coastal state, we got a few jitters too. Oh well, we soothed ourselves, at least here in the developed world we have a tsunami warning system.

We never thought to ask ourselves what the heck to do with it.

That became apparent this month when a tsunami warning went out from the alert center in Palmer, Alaska, prompted by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake off the coast of Northern California. To start, the warning station wasn't staffed at the time, though its scientists live within a few miles and one responded quickly to the automatic signal.

Then a staff member at the National Weather Service office in Monterey typed a wrong code to relay the alert. The state Office of Emergency Services sent out a teletype and called the designated county authorities, though some of those officials said they learned about the warning from television -- the same way most Californians heard about it.

Suddenly, just as the summer season was opening, the ocean that gives this state much of its land value and identity was a possible killer. Nobody seemed to know what to do. Some coastal cities rushed to clear low-lying areas, especially in Crescent City near the Oregon border, where 11 people died in a 1964 tsunami. Seal Beach officials thought of setting up an automated phone tree, but realized that any wave would come and go before they could get it operational. In Half Moon Bay, police did nothing. "People need to get a grip," said Lon Waxstein, commander of the city's police department.

Try telling that to the folks in Sri Lanka.

True, tsunamis are rare in California. The warning was canceled after it turned out the earthquake had generated only a 1-centimeter wave, about as thick as a grunion.

But what's the point of having a warning system if we're going to ignore it because we can't always be certain that a major wave is headed our way? Some people who heard the warning headed toward the beach to have a gander. In that case, we might as well tell the good scientists of Palmer not to bother.

Waxstein does have a point. The lion's share of emergency preparedness has to be geared toward earthquake and fire, far more common threats. Still, we get tsunami warnings -- set off by marine earthquakes of magnitude 7.1 or greater -- infrequently enough that responding isn't like running after the boy who cried wolf. In its nearly 40 years of existence, the Palmer center has put out five alerts. Some earthquakes occur so far away that they allow for hours of analysis of their potential danger. This one didn't. That's not a good reason for people to put their heads in the beach sand.

Prudent action doesn't have to mean clearing the entire coastline. According to Laura Furgione, who oversees the Palmer operation, people just need to get 30 feet above sea level. In hilly areas, it would be faster, easier and safer to walk up a knoll than to try driving out of town. In a building constructed to meet California earthquake standards, Furgione said, people who can get to the fifth floor or higher would be safe. For about $30, local officials or anyone else can buy a special "all-hazards" radio that automatically sounds an alarm when there's a tsunami warning. (For more information, go to weather.gov/nwr/allhazard.htm.)

As tragic as a surprise tsunami can be, it would be even more senseless to have warning and not act.

Meanwhile, Furgione has openings for around-the-clock monitors at the Alaska center. Palmer, anyone?

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