Tsunami Watch Tests Readiness Along Oregon Coast

Jan 23, 2018

Emergency management officials along the Oregon and Washington coasts woke up to a tsunami watch Tuesday morning, prompted by a magnitude 7.9 earthquake off the coast of Alaska.

The watch was later downgraded when the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration determined a small tsunami observed in Alaska posed no threat to coastal communities in the Pacific Northwest, but local emergency response protocols were still put to the test.

"I'm already working on my after-action report," said Jenny Demaris, emergency manager with Lincoln County. "I have several things on there, and these, I would not say, are critical. These are things that will make the next time go a little more smoothly."

Demaris said she's confident in the county's emergency plan. Lincoln County officials activated a system that put out phone calls to community members regarding the watch. Demaris said public utilities and public works partners were on standby in the event that the tsunami watch was upgraded to a tsunami warning.

She added that the tsunami watch revealed small details about how local emergency response could be improved. For example, volunteers did not have after-hours access to the right doors when they were activated for duty at 3:30 a.m.

"It was a good dress rehearsal for us to think about those after-action, after-hour needs," she said.

By around 4:20 a.m. Tuesday, city and state officials had joined a conference call. In the middle of the call, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration canceled the watch.

In Cannon Beach, Emergency Manager Consultant Stacy Burr said the city response was "a normal operation."

"I say this in air quotes as much as you could have when there is a concern of a distant tsunami in 46 hours," Burr said.

There was, however, confusion over whether the warning was upgraded or cancelled, according to Burr.

"There are a number of gaps, just communication-wise," she said. "A lot of that had to do upstream with other emergency stakeholder agencies, and that's a normal gap that we are always working to try and close and to solve."

Burr said a previous citywide training on to respond to tsunami warnings also revealed communication gaps, including shortcomings in communication to vulnerable and special-needs populations. 

Cannon Beach has since sent surveys to every home in the city to identify which sectors and neighborhoods might need additional help evacuating.

"Emergency management is based on not only best practices, but lessons learned," she said. "You're constantly educating yourself and constantly updating your systems to make sure you're resilient. I would say that it was a success in that we weren't taken aback and surprised, and we're comfortable with this, we've been trained on this, we know how to move forward."

Mark Winstanley, the city manager of Seaside, said tsunami risk is part of life on the coast.

"I think we're very prepared," Winstanley said. "We're always very cognizant; this is the area we live in and we pay attention to these things all the time. We ask people to practice, basically: What is it you're going to do if we wake you up at 2:30 in the morning and tell you you have to evacuate? This is a high priority in an area like this."

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