A tsunami watch was quietly issued 1:30 a.m. Jan. 23 and the usual “ping” Nixle users expect was replaced with silence – until the cancellation was issued at 4:20 a.m.
By Jordan Wolfe
“There was no warning – there was never a warning – it was a watch,” Emergency Management Director Lt. Gordon McCraw said. “It was just an advisory. We didn’t need to wake people up in the middle of the night just to say there probably wouldn’t be a tsunami.”
A 7.9 earthquake in the Gulf of Alaska sparked a wave of tsunami watches along the continental west coast – all cancelled within four hours of being issued.
“In a watch, the threat is not known and is being evaluated,” McCraw said, “They suggest First Responders prepare to act. This I did by activating the Incident Command Team at 911 so if action were required, all elements were in place to complete necessary tasks in minimal time.”
In the early hours of Jan. 23, Tillamook 911 was home to several law enforcement agencies, the health department, public works and fire districts, he said.
“We kept everybody at 911 until the watch was cancelled,” McCraw said.
So why did Nixle users receive a cancellation message but not for the Tsunami Watch?
“The cancellation message I typed in myself,” McCraw said, “I did this because I thought it was the quickest way to notify the First Responders, many of whom had to work later that morning, so they could secure and go back to bed.”
And that cancellation message was many residents’ first notification of a tsunami watch at all, which McCraw admitted caused some confusion.
“When I set this up [Nixle] years ago, I was asked by many users not to send out Advisories and Watches over the late night/early morning hours as these were not critical and could wait,” McCraw said, “As this event was a Tsunami Watch, this fell into this category.”
McCraw added he cannot deselect individual types within the category.
“So it is an all or nothing,” he said, “I can send or not send all Watches. By doing this, I don’t send non-critical items late at night, allowing users to leave their phones on, so if a Warning is issued, it still dings their phone.”
From 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. advisories and watches are silenced from phones (but are still sent via email), but anything more severe – like warnings – are sent 24/7.
While the watch was being monitored, McCraw said many agencies were hard at work in the early hours of Jan. 23.
“We did have a plan should something develop,” McCraw said. “They were prepared to alert people or remove them from harm.”
The plan entailed police and fire departments driving through every area that would have been affected by the potential distant tsunami. What may come as a wave of relief for many, McCraw said for years, Tillamook County had been overreacting to distant tsunami threats after the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) released new Inundation Zone maps. The impact of a distant tsunami – anything not generated from a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake – would be the same as the astronomical high tides Tillamook County experienced less than two weeks ago. McCraw recommended citizens check out how their homes would be impacted by visiting oregontsunami.org.
Sounding off on sirens
Fun fact: even if the sirens were still functional in Tillamook County, they wouldn’t have sounded, according to McCraw, who added even communities with the emergency devices installed didn’t sound the sirens – again, because it was a tsunami watch and nothing more severe.
The tsunami scare has generated another round of discussions about Tillamook County’s sirens, which went silent Jan. 1, 2013.
“My argument is what about the big one,” McCraw said, “You just had the worst ground shaking you’ve ever felt. Do I need to sound the sirens?”
Around 2011 a committee was formed to look at all elements of the County Siren System, he said. The sirens, at the time – which had been acquired (in used condition), from the Trojan Nuclear Plant almost 20 years prior – were all at the end of their life cycle.
“We were no longer able to get parts and new FCC guidelines would force us to use different activation radios as well, so a new system would need to be installed. After a multiyear study that ended with the release of the DOGAMI maps, the findings on the current siren system was presented to all the siren owners,” McCraw said.
At the time, there were 32 sirens – of which Tillamook County owned six.
“After the presentation, the siren owners – that included local cities, fire districts, homeowner association and other non-profit groups – unanimously agreed that they no longer wanted to support the use of sirens in favor of newer technologies,” McCraw said.
The local aftermath of the 2011 earthquake in Japan, he added, helped encourage this decision.
“The 2011 event showed us we had the capability to alert everyone in a four-hour timeframe to keep all citizens safe,” he said.
McCraw said he believes in the new technologies the county has been utilizing and said there are absolutely no considerations to bring sirens back – adding a new system from scratch would cost around $35,000, not including maintenance. He also is encouraging all citizens to generate an emergency plan that includes go kits, communication plans, and all the other elements that can be found at www.ready.gov that can help be better prepared.
“This was a good eye-opener,” McCraw said, “And a great educational tool.”