If there is a frontline in Del Norte’s war on tsunamis, it would have to be Crescent City Harbor.
Not only has the port sustained more damage from tsunamis than the rest of the county, but those who live and work there have the longest haul to get out of the evacuation zone.
When the Big One strikes, be it night or day, there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of people in the harbor vicinity, with its residents in RV parks, workers in retail outlets and restaurants, commercial fishermen on the docks and harbor staff members.
With the intention of walking the long route with these front-liners during Del Norte’s tsunami evacuation drill on Wednesday, I scanned the scene for a group that I could join.
Many lowlanders did not know about the drill, and those who did were not too keen on facing the rainy, windy weather. Others said there was no way they could take their elderly mothers or cane-using selves on the one-mile-plus evacuation route.
William Oros, a resident at the Harbor RV park, thought the sirens were the real thing and was ready to start driving his motor home out of the zone before members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary told him it was a drill.
He was surprised at their suggestion that walking to the top of Whaler’s Island would be a safe place to ride out the tsunami surges.
“I wouldn’t go out on that friggin’ island,” Oros said. “If a big wave really came, it would sweep you right off the top. Even if you survived it, you could die of hypothermia.”
If there was a real tsunami threat, most people in the harbor said they would be inclined to drive south on Highway 101 up Crescent City hill. But emergency officials have said that it’s wiser to travel north on 101 to the safe zone that starts at 9th street. The height of 101 heading south keeps evacuees at sea level for much longer than heading north.
Emergency officials are quick to acknowledge the grim predicament of people in the harbor.
During a mega-earthquake and tsunami produced by the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which scientists predict has a 40 percent chance of happening in the next 50 years, there will be up to five minutes of ground shaking followed by a huge tsunami in less than 10 minutes.
“We’re not going to get out of here in 10 minutes. Old people take 10 minutes to get dressed,” Oros said.
Although I couldn’t find any harbor folks practicing the evacuation, I timed myself to see how long it would take to walk to safety, starting in the harbor’s inner boat basin.
Ten minutes in, with the first hypothetical tsunami surge at my heels, I was just passing Elk Creek, not any higher above sea level from where I started. It took a full 20 minutes to reach 9th Street, walking at a brisk pace.
Troy Nicolini, warning coordinator for the National Weather Service office in Eureka, said that although emergency managers typically do not recommend driving, the people in the harbor might want to drive as far as they can before a downed power line or a fractured roadway blocks their path. Then they could park and attempt to walk to safety .
Timothy Blair, another resident at Harbor RV park, said that local officials should station a bus in working order that harbor residents could pile into during an emergency.
“I’d rather chance it in a vehicle than chance it on foot, because you’re not going to outrun a wave moving at 40 or 60 miles per hour,” Blair said.
Cindy Henderson, Del Norte County’s Emergency Services Manager, does not recommend that anyone rely on driving, because a Cascadia earthquake is likely to make roads impassable.
“Knowing what we know from all the other similar earthquakes, I cannot say that it will be possible to drive,” Henderson said, adding that driving might be an option, “but you can’t rely on it.”
People are going to have to rely on themselves and the plans they create beforehand.
A man in a wheelchair called Henderson the day before the drill to ask “who’s coming to get me?” Henderson recalled.
“And I said, ‘I’m sorry but no one is coming to get you,’” Henderson told the man, adding that he needed to create a plan to have his neighbors help him.
When the man said he did not want to burden his neighbors, Henderson told him: “Then I’m sorry to tell you that you’re probably going to die.”
Henderson recounted the tale during a debriefing with first responders after the evacuation.
“I’m not trying to be harsh here, but you’re going to have to burden your neighbor or make friends with your neighbor. That’s why Neighbors Helping Neighbors is so important; you have to rely on each other in your neighborhood or else you are going to pass away,” Henderson said.
Dave Hess, of Oregon City, had his motor home at Harbor RV park Wednesday, staying there while visiting the redwoods with his wife. He said that even as a visitor, Wednesday’s drill made him want to be more aware of what to do during a tsunami.
“It’s something that people need to be more conscious of every time that they go to the coast,” Hess said.
And for people who regularly work or live in the harbor, it’s something that necessitates a plan.