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Editor's Note: Tsunami-complacency a real danger

Saturday’s tsunami scare brings another chance to remind Del Norters: If there is breaking news of local importance — and what could be more important than a possible tsunami? — it will be posted and updated when appropriate at triplicate.com.

Triplicate Assistant Editor Matt Durkee started monitoring developments shortly after a monster earthquake shook Chile late Friday. When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a tsunami advisory for the West Coast, Durkee drove to the office and posted the news online at 3:20 a.m.

A few hours later, staff writer Adam Madison started talking to local authorities and posting updates. By then, we knew the estimated arrival time and severity of the waves coming toward Crescent City. That allowed us to let people know that no significant inundation was expected.

Of course you could have also gone straight to NOAA’s Web site. The advantage of checking The Triplicate and/or listening to local radio stations is that you can find out what our authorities are saying — without flooding emergency telephone lines.

Saturday’s long-range tsunami forecast showed how far technology has advanced since 1964, when Crescent City only had a couple hours of less-specific warning before killer waves arrived from a quake in Alaska.

Not that such forecasting is an exact science even now. NOAA issued a tsunami warning Saturday for Hawaii, where destructive waves were feared. As their anticipated 1 p.m. arrival approached, CNN showed live scenes of the evacuated beaches, giving viewers the impression they were about to witness something dramatic. I was pretty sure they’d be disappointed.

It may have been the first time a tsunami’s arrival was so breathlessly anticipated on live television, hurricane-coverage-style. But the sea stayed relatively calm — even if a big wave had arrived, the rolling flood might have been underwhelming to a TV audience used to graphic footage of catastrophes.

The scariest sights I saw were narrow roads along ocean bluffs jammed with parked and slow-moving cars. I hate traffic jams.

Unfortunately, such a well-publicized false alarm could make some people less tsunami-wary. Even though NOAA correctly predicted only tiny swells on the West Coast, the tidal wave buzz had curious people flocking to the coast. Viewpoints along Pebble Beach were full.

Up in Seaside, Ore., police fought a losing battle to keep people off the sand. Tsunami expert Patrick Corcoran of the Sea Grant program was there, trying to make it a teachable moment. “These distant-event tsunamis are really nothing, and we tend to overemphasize them,” Corcoran said. “If people come away from this thinking tsunamis on the Oregon Coast mean licking ice cream cones and strolling on the promenade here, that’s a terrible mistake.”

Authorities didn’t close the beaches in Crescent City, but it just seemed like good role-modeling to stay off them with a tsunami advisory in effect.

The frustrated Corcoran may have forgotten about Del Norte’s devastation of ’64 as he dismissed the danger of “distant-event tsunamis,” but he still made an important point.

Detailed tsunami forecasts come hours in advance only when the earthquake happens far away. That’s why experts say if you feel a significant quake, you should head for high ground immediately.

 

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