Alaska Earthquake, Tsunami Scare Jan. 23 Raises LOTS of Questions

By Lt. Gordon McCraw, Tillamook County Emergency Management Director
The recent tsunami scare has raised awareness but also raised some questions and concerns. I will try to address those that I have been hearing.
First, this was a Tsunami Watch (on January 23) that was issued a little after 1:30 am. There seemed to be some confusion on the meaning, so I will cover the different alerts sent by the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center. The Hawaii Warning Center also issues tsunami messages but the agency responsible for Washington, Oregon, and California is the Alaska Center.
• The lowest level message is an Information Statement. This means there is no threat or was a very distant event for which hazard has not been determined. No action is suggested for this event.
• The next level is what we had, a Tsunami Watch. In a watch the threat is not known and is being evaluated. They suggest First Responders prepare to act. This I did by activating Tillamook County’s Incident Command Team at 911 so if action were required, all elements were in place to complete necessary tasks in minimal time.
• Above this is the Tsunami Advisory. This warns you could see strong currents and waves dangerous to those in or very near water. We would keep individuals out of the water and off the beaches.
• Finally, the top level is the Tsunami Warning, the last one was the 2011 Japan event. This alert warns of possible strong currents and waves dangerous to those in or very near water. It warns those in the inundation zone to move to high ground or inland.

Next there appears some misinformation about who is and who is not in the Distant Tsunami Inundation Zone. Remember that a few years ago, the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) released new Inundation Maps for Tillamook County (and other areas) that used new, highly detailed LIDAR maps and newer modeling results that showed we had been overreacting to Distant Tsunami threats. To see your location, go to where all the maps are available, and you can use their interactive map to
move up and down the coast and zero in on your location to see the Distant and Local Tsunami worst case inundation lines. I highly recommend you do this to gain a better understanding of the threat. You can look at other areas you visit to determine the threats in other areas.
There was also confusion on why the first some Nixle users heard about this was the Cancellation Message. I can configure Nixle to not send certain category of NOAA messages (Advisories, Watches, and Warnings) during certain times. These messages, including tsunami messages, are automated and are issued when sent by the National Weather Service. When I set this up 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. As this event was a Tsunami Watch, this fell into this category. I cannot deselect individual types within the category, so it is an all or nothing. I can send or not send all Watches. By doing this, I don’t send non-critical items late night allowing users to leave their phones on, so if a Warning is issued, it still dings their phone. The cancellation message I typed in myself. I did this
because I thought it was the quickest way to notify the First Responders, many who had to work later that morning, so they could secure and go back to bed. I also considered our citizens, many of whom had already called 911, who were also concerned, anxious, and also had to work the next day. (NOTE: There were over 40 calls to Tillamook 911 about the tsunami watch alerts about what to do, etc. PLEASE DO NOT CALL 911 for these type of inquiries. Please use the NON-EMERGENCY number – 503-815-1911.)

The topic of sirens has come up once again. Around 2011 a committee was formed to look at all elements of the County Siren System. The sirens, at the time, which had been acquired, used, 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 were presented to all the siren owners. At the
time there were 32 sirens of which the County owned 6. 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. I should mention that this recommendation could be reached for Tillamook County only as other areas, particularly southern Oregon Coast, inundation results are very different due to near shore and on shore topography.

Hopefully, this clears up some of the misunderstandings. It is an excellent example why you should have a plan, one that includes go kits, communication plans, and all the other elements that can be found at that can help you be better prepared.