Tsunami in the Sound

  • By Eric Stevick, Bill Sheets and Rikki King Herald Writers
  • Friday, March 11, 2011 12:43pm
  • Local News

If a catastrophic earthquake struck Western Washington, towering walls of water could slam Snohomish County.

The magnitude 8.9 earthquake in Japan highlights the need to prepare for major earthquake events and the potential for tsunamis, local emergency management experts said Friday. Not onl

y would buildings come down here, survivors could have to contend with water racing from the west and the east.

Emergency management crews say they are as prepared as possible. They’ve stockpiled supplies, linked up with regional and national resources and have a host of experts on hand.

Around here, it is all about the earthquakes, said Dave DeHaan, the city of Everett’s director of emergency management.

“If we can be prepared for the big earthquake, we feel we can manage most disasters,” he said.

Tsunamis are caused by earthquakes, and they’ve raced across the land here before, the most recent less than 200 years ago. Geological evidence shows that a large tsunami hit Possession Sound and the Snohomish River Delta about 1,000 years ago, said Jody Bourgeois, a University of Washington professor of earth and space sciences.

For the people who live here, the next major quake isn’t a matter of if but when, local experts said. The most important step is preparedness.

They were in contact with the state Department of Emergency Management and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center as soon as the tragic events began unfolding in Japan.

Snohomish County emergency workers monitored sea levels, Director John Pennington said. Video images coming from Japan offer a glimpse of the devastation that could happen in U.S. communities along the West Coast, he said.

Snohomish County is crisscrossed with fault lines, including an area of major geologic risk about 70 miles off the Pacific Coast. If a big quake hits, there would be little time to evacuate communities before the walls of water that could follow.

Much of the county’s population lives between two sources of risk, Pennington said.

To the west are Admiralty Inelt, Puget Sound and Possession Sound, which have kicked up tsunamis in the past. To the east is Culmback Dam at the headwaters of the Sultan River. The dam is in good repair, but if it came down during an earthquake, it could unleash a 40-foot tall surge of water. The flood would reach Sultan in 40 minutes, Pennington said.

That’s why the county is applying for federal money to place warning sirens in Everett and Sultan.

The county’s 2010 Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan says the county likely wouldn’t see significant tsunami impacts from an earthquake in the Pacific Ocean in large part because Whidbey Island serves as a shield to the west.

However, a major earthquake in Washington could cause a tsunami on Puget Sound that brings massive destruction.

People living and working along the county’s coastline would be at greatest risk, the plan says.

Vulnerable areas include Everett, Edmonds, Marysville, Mukilteo and Stanwood.

One computer simulation shows that a Puget Sound tsunami could inundate the Snohomish River Valley with 16 feet of water. Planners calculated that the one-two punch from an earthquake and tsunami could cause $1.5 billion in damage to buildings in the county.

Pennington said he also would be concerned about a major earthquake off of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands sending walls of water south and east.

Fortunately, much of Snohomish County is protected by its own geography, he said.

According to tribal accounts from the early 1800s, a landslide on the south end of Camano Island caused a great wave that swallowed a small village on Hat Island and drowned members of local Indian tribes who were digging clams.

Geologists also have found evidence of tsunami events at Cultus Bay and Possession Beach on Whidbey Island.

Tsunamis travel quickly over open water but slow as they reach land, becoming a tall wall of water, said Alecia Spooner, an earth sciences instructor at Everett Community College.

“Normal waves crash into the beach and curl — they’re rolling,” Spooner said. “Tsunami waves aren’t curling. When that wall of water hits the beach, they’re big walls of water that move inland until they run out of water and energy.”

Getting the word out is critical. Snohomish County now has several ways to warn people when to leave and which routes to take. A reverse 911 system, for instance, has been used during recent floods and winter storms.

In Japan, a warning system sends out alerts to other parts of the country after an earthquake hits, according to seismologists here. It might provide only a minute or two of warning, but it can help officials shut down trains or gas lines in time, said Joan Gomberg, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, based in Seattle.

The city of Everett has had a full-time emergency management director since 2002.

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, forced a complete reworking of critical incident response across the country, said Everett’s DeHaan.

History shows earthquakes are the greatest risk for people and businesses here, he said. City departments have worked together over the years to store emergency supplies in various locations. They also work with businesses, community groups and neighbors on preparedness plans.

Everett has about 200 certified emergency workers it can call on for help, in addition to police and fire crews, DeHaan said.

The biggest priority for families is to prepare for living without power or supplies for up to a week. That means stockpiling food, water and blankets, he said.

More than 120 Snohomish County firefighters have trained to become rescue technicians, Snohomish County Fire District 1 spokeswoman Leslie Hynes said. Their skills include reaching people trapped in confined spaces as well as recovering victims from water and ice.

Now that Japan has shown the potential devastation from a quake, people here need to take the steps to prepare, Pennington said.

He recommends families plan to be away from home for at least three days to a week. He also suggests having a list of out-of-town contacts to help reach other family members.

Sharon Salyer contributed to this report.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com

Experts say you should be prepared for a major earthquake by having an emergency kit ready.

Among your supplies, have a gallon of water per person per day, for at least three days; have enough nonperishable food for three days; flashlights and a radio, with extra batteries; a first-aid kit; medicines, prescription information and your insurance card; pliers and wrenches to turn off gas and water mains.

For a complete list on how to prepare your family in the event of an earthquake or other emergency:

www.ready.gov or www.whodependsonyou.com

Find disaster preparedness guides from the Washington Military Department: http://www.emd.wa.gov/preparedness/prep_index.shtml

For more information about Everett’s emergency planning, visit http://www.ci.everett.wa.us/default.aspx?ID=402

On Friday morning, Comcast unlocked the signal for TV Japan so customers can watch earthquake coverage directly from a Japanese news source.

TV Japan is available to all Comcast digital cable customers in Washington state on digital cable channel 245. The channel, which is normally a premium channel available for an extra charge, will remain open for one week to any Washington state Comcast customer who subscribes to a Digital Cable package.

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