Shake-out and brush-up on your tsunami survival skills

By Gordon Williams

The number one reason for taking part in the Great Washington Shake-Out on October 17, 2019 is to practice and perfect your earthquake survival skills of drop, cover and hold on. Washington State is earthquake country and the quicker you can respond when the ground shakes, the better your chances of escaping harm when the next big quake rolls around.

But there is a second part to the Great Shakeout, and you need to be aware of it if you live anywhere near the Washington coastline. At 10:17 a.m. on 10/17 — the same time as you drop, cover and hold on — tsunami alarm sirens will sound in every community at risk of being swamped by a quake-induced wall of water.

The tsunami alarms are tested every month, but at each routine test the alarms sound the Westminster chimes to let you know it is a test. To make sure you get the message on October 17, the alarm will sound the same wailing siren you would hear if the danger of a tsunami was real and imminent. Voiced messages along with the wailing sound will remind everyone it is a test, says Maximilian Dixon, geologic hazards supervisor for the Washington State Emergency Management Division.

Fortunately, tsunamis don’t happen very often. The National Weather Service, at its weather.gov/safety/tsunami website, says that, “Tsunamis are among Earth’s most infrequent hazards.” When they do occur, though, the damage can be horrific. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed 230,000 people in 14 countries. The 2011 Japanese tsunami killed over 16,000 people, flooded 200 square miles and wrecked the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Since there is no certain way to predict when an earthquake might occur, there is no certain way to predict when a tsunami might occur. “A tsunami can strike any ocean coast at any time,” says the National Weather Service. “There is no season for tsunamis.”

June 4, 2014. Aceh, Indonesia. Syarifah “Ipah” Marlina points the way to safety, near an evacuation route sign installed by the American Red Cross in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Ipah’s hometown was badly-affected by the tsunami, but she harnessed the pain to help others heal. The American Red Cross provided vital relief in the aftermath of the tsunami, including the installation of evacuation centers and routes. Photo by Jenelle Eli/American Red Cross

Your best tsunami survival strategy is to assume another big quake is just ahead and plan accordingly. Dixon notes that Seattle is hit by a major quake around once every 50 years. The last big quake to hit the region was the Nisqually quake in 2001. Dixon says there is an 84 percent chance of another major quake within the next 50 years.

Planning ahead for a tsunami begins with knowing your risk: Is your home, workplace, school or any other spot you visit frequently in a tsunami hazard or evacuation zone? Has your community had tsunamis in the past? Your local police or fire department or county department of emergency management should have answers to those questions. If you live on low ground near the seacoast, your tsunami risk may be pretty high.

If you are in a danger zone, know ahead of time what you would do if a tsunami heads your way. Has your community identified evacuation routes to get you away from the danger? If not, map out your own routes to high ground. It should be a place you can reach on foot, since roads away from the coast would be thronged with traffic and may be blocked by debris after a quake.

Practice walking your evacuation route at night and in bad weather. The better you know your escape route, the easier evacuation will be. Dixon points out that every school that might be flooded by a tsunami must conduct evacuation drills at least once a year, and all public schools in the state must conduct an earthquake drill once a year. Talk to the schools your kids attend. What are their evacuation plans should a tsunami come during school hours?

Explore the possibility of “vertical evacuation” in your community. That would be buildings high enough to be safely above the crest of a tsunami wave.

If there is a quake while you are in an inundation zone, drop, cover and hold on to protect yourself. As soon as it is safe to move, go immediately to high ground or at least inland.  Don’t wait for the sirens to wail; every second counts here. If a wave of water is on the way, says Dixon, “on the outer coast you will have 15 to 20 minutes to make it to high ground.”

Photo courtesy: Washington State Department of Natural Resources

The longer and stronger the quake, the greater the tsunami risk. A loud roar from the ocean —sounding like a train or airplane — could signal a tsunami heading your way. For more tsunami tips, visit mil.wa.gov/tsunami. Search for dnr/tsunami to see what advice the state’s Department of Natural Resources has to offer.

The harsh reality, says Dixon, is that many coastal residents won’t make it safely to high ground before the tsunami hits. One answer is to bring high ground nearer to the coast —which gets back to the idea of vertical evacuation. That would involve building structures near the coast tall enough to stay above the tsunami and strong enough to withstand the force of the water.

The Ocosta School District at Westport, Washington, sold school bonds to build such a structure in 2016. The Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe has started building such a structure, using its own funds and a federal grant. Pacific County Fire District #1 is using a mix of federal and state grants to study building a vertical evacuation structure to serve the Long Beach Peninsula.

‘We need to build dozens and dozens of these structures along the coast,” says Dixon, He acknowledges that we are just getting started on a program that could take many years and cost tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. If coastal residents can’t reach high ground,

then the answer may be bringing high ground to the coast.

To sign up for the Great Washington ShakeOut, visit shakeout.org/washington and learn how to be safe!

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