Standing as a testament to the inquisitive (or idiotic) nature of human beings, the Imperial Beach Pier was filled with onlookers Friday morning hoping to catch a glimpse of a bonafide tsunami barreling into the city.
Of course, for anyone who was present, it was less than terrifying. In fact, unless one knows what to look for, it’s likely most people completely missed the moment the tsunami reached our shoreline.
Public safety officials had twelve hours to digest the information coming out of Japan and the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, who monitor tsunami activity in the Pacific and alert appropriate local authorities when a potential threat presents itself.
There was time to decide on what degree of preparation was necessary to protect Imperial Beach and its residents, and carry out a decided plan of action.
The tsunami’s travel time from source to shore, its arrival during low tide and the underwater terrain of the southern California coast combined to ensure that this tsunami would be nothing compared to what was being experienced in Japan.
But today’s event raises interesting questions: what if officials didn't have twelve hours? What if the source of this tsunami wasn't near Japan, more than 6,500 miles away, but some tectonic anomaly 50 miles off the San Diego coast?
Would you be aware of how to spot the warning signs of an impending tsunami? Do we have a tsunami response plan in Imperial Beach?
“We do have a tsunami response plan drawn up for Imperial Beach. In fact, we were the first city in San Diego County to have an official plan,” said Lifeguard Captain Robert Stabenow said, with a hint of pride in his voice.
“I’m pretty proud of it. I drew it up back in 2006,” he said.
In the event of a tsunami evacuation, he said, reverse 911 phone calls are made to all homes and registered cell phones that need to be evacuated, PA announcements are made by the Sheriff's Department and lifeguards, along with door-to-door canvassing and media releases.
Residents would be told to leave the tsunami's impact zone by traveling east on either Palm Avenue or Imperial Beach Boulevard.
"When City Hall is closed, like today, all public safety staff and emergency managers are on call and will be notified to respond and implement the City tsunami plan," he said.
Once residents are evacuated, city authorities would withdraw, wait for the tsunami event to end, and then return to the area to begin search and rescue procedures.
A tsunami with a local source, however, would require a degree of perception and education on the part of Imperial Beach residents to ensure there were no injuries.
“If a tsunami was triggered by some tectonic movement say, fifty miles off the coast, the waves could reach shore within minutes.
"There would be no time for city authorities to call for an evacuation. People need to be aware of the warning signs preceding a tsunami to protect themselves in the event a local source tsunami was to occur,” Stabenow said.
“That’s why we have a tsunami emergency pamphlet available to the public at the [lifeguard] station.”
This is a reminder to the community that everyone needs plan and be ready for any disaster, whether it be an earthquake, tsunami or flood he said.
The primary pre-tsunami red flags are earthquakes, especially ones lasting more than thirty seconds at a beach area and rapid recession of water from the beach.
Following such events, beachgoers immediate response should be to head inland to higher ground following the planned evacuation route. Evacuating residents can tune into AM 600 for emergency information and to await further instructions from authorities.
Luckily, tsunamis in general are rare events, and the chances of a local source tsunami occurring are very slim.
We have local evacuation and preparedness plans, national alert systems and advanced oceanographic monitoring services to keep constant vigil and better ensure the safety of costal citizens.
But a slim chance is still a chance, so prepare for the ‘what-if’ questions by visiting the local lifeguard station and educating yourself on tsunami preparedness.