Tsunami scare an early morning wake-up call

People drive to higher ground early Tuesday in Sitka, Alaska, after tsunami sirens and cellphone messages told residents to leave after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck in the Gulf of Alaska.

After a magnitude 7.9 earthquake in Alaska prompted a tsunami watch for the Oregon Coast in the wee hours Tuesday morning, Clatsop County Emergency Management Director Tiffany Brown started getting questions about why her office did not issue a local alert.

A tsunami watch means there is the potential for a surge to happen but does not require immediate action. This differs from a tsunami warning, which calls for imminent evacuation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Confusion about the difference prompted a flood of emergency calls to Seaside and Astoria dispatch centers. Management at Camp 18 restaurant on U.S. Highway 26 reported seeing more than 40 cars of people trying to evacuate in their parking lot at 4 a.m.

Brown is the administrator for the local emergency system, which can send messages to anyone signed up through ClatsopALERTS! to their landlines, cellphones or emails. Many factors, including the time of day and severity of the earthquake, guided her decision not to issue an alert.

Brown said that if the federal alert had occurred during daytime hours, her office would have likely followed up with some clarification locally and used the experience as an educational tool. Because the tsunami watch was issued at 3 a.m., and the magnitude and characteristics of the earthquake did not cause immediate concern, she said it did not make sense to wake people up.

“People don’t always understand where an alert is coming from. The alert was issued by NOAA from one of the U.S. tsunami centers, which was very general,” Brown said. “On the backside, I’m getting more alerts from NOAA that are more granular — where the danger is anticipated, where it is expected to hit, which at the time the Hawaiian Islands were the concern. But if you boil it down to a broad, surface-level message, all you see is ‘Ah! Tsunami warning!’”

Between the false alarm tsunami sirens issued by Seaside and a false missile alert in Hawaii this month, Brown said being judicious is even more important to avoid panic.

“There was nothing to warn people about,” Brown said. “There’s enough uncertainty around the system. Between Seaside and Hawaii, this is really bringing mass notification systems to the forefront.”

None of the cities in Clatsop County decided to issue any tsunami alerts Tuesday, for similar reasons as Brown. Many sent out statements over social media that local first responders were monitoring the situation. In Cannon Beach, police and fire officials went as far as to arrange an Emergency Operations Center with Arch Cape and Falcon Cove.

“This was a great scenario to put us through. I’d rather plan ahead than play catch-up,” Cannon Beach Fire Chief Matt Benedict said. “With this occurring near Alaska, it gave us some time. We had several hours to get ducks in a row.”

Brown hopes to turn the tsunami scare into an educational moment for the county, cities and people in the community, she said. She wants to launch a public education campaign about how tsunami alerts work to address confusion. She’s also encouraging more people to register with the local alert system.

The majority of the 18,000 residents registered are on landlines, with only 3,200 registered on cellphones — a factor that could stunt the county’s ability to get the word out in an actual emergency.

“Yes we have this system, and it can do amazing things, but it only notices those who are registered,” Brown said. “After today, I think we’re going to hear citizens say, ‘Wow, we really need to get prepared. I wasn’t ready for that.’”

In future events, Brown and Benedict recommend people follow local sources of information and the National Weather Service before calling 911.

Where to sign up: Sign up for alerts at www.co.clatsop.or.us/em/page/clatsopalerts


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