A magnitude 8.0 earthquake that killed dozens of people in Samoa and American Samoa on Tuesday (Sept. 29) set off a chain reaction that quickly rippled out to the U.S. Pacific Coast, where emergency managers each had to make a careful choice about how to respond, according to The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore.
Sound the alarm too loudly, and panic could prove a greater danger to people than any wave. Say nothing, and a bigger-than-expected event could catch beachcombers unaware.
Danny Barnum, a 19-year-old clerk at BJ’s Ice Cream on Highway 101 in Florence, Ore., said the town noticeably cleared out around 8 p.m.
“This is usually our busiest time of night — now it’s a ghost town,” Barnum said a few minutes before 10 p.m.
Barnum said some of his friends drove to Mapleton to escape the possible tsunami, and even opted to take a back road so as to avoid Highway 126, which hugs the Siuslaw River.
There was no clear directive from state or federal officials Tuesday about how local emergency managers should handle the tsunami warning, which is the lowest of the three alert levels the National Weather Service uses to notify the public.
That left individual cities and counties to make their own decisions about how to react. In Tillamook and Lincoln counties, where there are myriad beachfront properties and hotels, authorities roamed beaches, advising people to stay off them and out of the water, said Curtis Landers, the county’s director of emergency services.
The same was planned for Lane County, where there’s far less beachfront property and only one campground that abuts the water: Harbor Vista. That respite sits on a bluff high above the beach and well out of harm’s way, which is why the campground’s host, Gene Jarabek, took a mild-mannered approach to warning the half-dozen vacationers staying there.
“I told the ones on the end there that there’s a small wave coming, and to be careful about being on the beach or in the water,” said Jarabek, resting his arms on the handlebars of the mountain bike he used to travel to the campsite. “They’re 50 feet high there (at the site), so they’re not too worried about 10 inches.”
Mostly, Lane County officials simply wanted to monitor the situation, said emergency manager Linda Cook, who issued a warning to residents anyway – even while knowing it could have a reverse effect.
“As soon as you tell them to stay away, they’re going to want to go there,” Cook said. “It’s our duty to make sure people are advised.”
The forecast was for a tsunami big enough only to damage docks and make it tricky to swim, said Tyree Wilde, a spokesman with the National Weather Service.
At the Siuslaw River North Jetty, yellow signs read simply “Tsunami evacuation 8 p.m.-10:30 p.m. 9/29/09.” That didn’t scare off Bev McMackin, visiting from Boise.
“I at least wanted to see the ocean before I go home,” she said. “But I don’t want to see too much of it.”