Agencies prepare for tsunami debris

Later this year, it might not be such an uncommon sight to see a refrigerator, a car bumper or a garage door wash up on beaches in the state.

These are just a few of the items that have been drifting across the Pacific Ocean since the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, said Curt Ebbesmeyer,a retired Seattle oceanographer who studies flotsam.

These things, and much more, are coming this way.

“Go home tonight and look at your house and imagine putting it through a shredder and then on the water, and multiply that by 10,000,” Ebbesmeyer said.

How all this will be handled when it gets here, and who picks up the tab, are the questions government agencies are beginning to tackle.

Some tsunami debris has already trickled over, Ebbesmeyer said, but he believes the biggest pieces will start hitting the beaches next October. Government agencies are kicking into planning gear, said Linda Kent, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology.

A meeting of state, local, federal and tribal officials in Western Washington is scheduled for April 25, she said. A joint information web page has been created.

“All the different agencies need to work closely together to address this,” Kent said.

Most of the debris is expected to hit the coast and some will likely drift down the Strait of Juan de Fuca into inland waters, Ebbesmeyer said.

Snohomish County could be spared much of the flood because the county is somewhat shielded from the strait by Whidbey Island, said John Pennington, director of the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management.

“But we also are taking the position that it’s inevitable that we’ll see something,” Pennington said.

So far, officials are talking about having jurisdictions do what they do best, Kent said. For example, the ecology department could respond to hazardous waste, the state Department of Health to situations where an item could be radioactive.

Informing the public also will be important, and the ecology department has put out a “who to call” sheet for people who find things.

Local solid waste utilities could be assigned the task of picking up and hauling off the trash, she said.

An expert in currents while at the University of Washington, Ebbesmeyer, 68, recently has been running a website focusing on flotsam, Beachcombers’ Alert. He’s written a book on the subject called “Flotsametrics and the Floating World.”

Some debris from the tsunami began showing up in October on beaches from California to Kodiak, Alaska, according to Ebbesmeyer.

That’s been mostly little stuff, though, he said. The big stuff is still sitting out there.

“The things that stuck out of the water blew right across in seven months,” Ebbesmeyer said. “The slow-moving stuff is only halfway across.”

The junk already arriving includes large plastic fishing floats and household items. Bigger things like house and car parts are slower moving. Since the prevailing Pacific current moves in this direction, though, it’s all coming, and when it hits, it will keep coming for a few months or more, Ebbesmeyer said.

“It looks like Washington and Vancouver Island will get most of the debris,” he said.

So far, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aren’t getting specific about when the flotsam could arrive, though that could change as soon as this week.

The department is working on a new tracking model and more information could be out in a matter of days, said Keeley Belva, a spokeswoman for NOAA in Washington, D.C.

She cautioned that not all marine debris that shows up is from the tsunami.

Ebbesmeyer said that is true but in October and November, many of three different types of plastic and Styrofoam fishing floats suddenly began showing up on beaches from Oregon to Alaska. The timing and amount of the items is an indication these items were from the tsunami, he said in his blog.

Some of the photos of floating islands of tsunami debris in the Pacific show many of these types of fishing floats bunched together.

Ebbesmeyer said there could be more abandoned Japanese “ghost” ships of the kind fired upon last week and sunk by the U.S. Coast Guard in the Gulf of Alaska.

He said it’s important to get items off the beach quickly. Some of the Styrofoam floats could break up into small pieces and pose hazards for wildlife, for example, he said.

All the debris should be stored and studied as much as possible, Ebbesmeyer said.

“This is an unprecedented event in recorded history,” he said.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com..

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