Ron Phillips had just gone to sleep when his grandson told him that a massive earthquake had struck Japan.
It was about 10:30 p.m. March 10, 2011. Sleep impossible, Phillips, a commissioner for the Crescent City Harbor District, called then-harbormaster Richard Young.
“He sent me down to the harbor to start beating on the doors of the fishermen that might be on board and let them know they needed to get the boats out,” said Phillips, who is currently the harbor district’s board president. “We were on the jump. I would say by 5:30 the buses already got down there and started taking people out of the RV parks. We got our equipment moved up to higher ground. By 6 o’clock it was a ghost town down there and it was all because of the early warning.”
The first surge swept into the Crescent City Harbor at 7:35 a.m. March 11, 2011, but thanks to the Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunami (DART) warning buoys, local emergency personnel and scientists had a forecast of how large the tsunami would be and when it would arrive about seven hours earlier, said Humboldt State University geology professor Lori Dengler, who is part of the Redwood Coast Tsunami Work Group.
The forecast predicted a tsunami with a maximum water height of 2.5 meters in Crescent City, Dengler said. The actual maximum water height was 2.49 meters, she said.
The DART buoy system that allowed Crescent City and Del Norte County to brace for the 2011 tsunami is under threat. In his 2018 budget plan, President Trump proposes to discontinue funding to operate the $12 million system.
Trump’s budget plan calls for saving $11 million by shuttering one of the country’s two tsunami warning centers, cutting staff from 40 full-time employees to 15. His budget also proposes ending $6 million in grants to states, which fund emergency drills and the drawing of flood maps and evacuation plans.
Since then, Trump’s proposal to cut dollars to tsunami programs has been rejected by the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations. In its report released July 13, the committee is recommending an allocation of $220 million to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for observation activities. It is also recommending $486 million for forecast and support activities, which includes funding the tsunami warning centers in Alaska and Hawaii.
“The committee does not adopt the proposed reduction for the tsunami warning centers, the Mesonet program or the Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunami (DART) buoys,” the Appropriation Committee report states. “The committee does not adopt the proposed reduction of the tsunami warning centers.”
Dengler noted that discontinuing the dollars that keeps the DART system operational would take scientists’ ability to warn coastal communities of an impending tsunami back to the 1990s. The current tsunami program consists of the two warning centers, the DART system and the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program, which began in 1996.
The National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program was developed following the 1992 Cape Mendocino earthquake. According to Dengler, before the program was in place, if an earthquake occurred “somewhere in the world,” the system would produce a bulletin saying where it was, estimating its magnitude and giving an approximate time when the first surge would arrive. There was no estimate of the size or impacts of the predicted tsunami, she said.
“There was criteria for what a warning and a watch would be, but there was a lot of uncertainty because it was based entirely on the earthquake characteristics, how big it is and where it is and then it would be updated as they got water levels at tide gauges,” Dengler said. “But the problem is that’s really poor information as far as time to tell you what might happen in your community. The coastal tide gauges are so strongly affected by where they’re located.”
Crescent City experienced two unnecessary warnings in 1986 and 1994 due to poor information, Dengler said.
The National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program not only improved the ability to get more accurate warnings out, it also provided for better tsunami maps and improved the ability to assess hazards, Dengler said. This led to better outreach and education for residents of coastal communities.
“Just notifying folks wasn’t enough, you had to really have an active program of outreach and education so people understood what was meant and to support communities in planning,” Dengler said. “Crescent City and Del Norte County have really benefitted from that and I think the best example is what happened in 2011.”
Not only has the grant funding to states to reduce tsunami hazards helped Crescent City prepare for a distant-source tidal wave like the ones that struck in 2011 and 1964, it has also helped Del Norte Office of Emergency Services Manager Cindy Henderson educate residents about near-source tsunamis generated by the Cascadia Subduction Zone.
Henderson said she receives about $400,000 to $500,000 in grants for disaster preparedness. This includes an Emergency Management Preparedness Grant for law enforcement and fire, a grant from the California Department of Public Health to address epidemics and other health-related disasters and a grant from the Department of Homeland Security for other disasters.
If that funding is cut, efforts to educate the community on how to prepare and respond to an earthquake or a tsunami could be lost, Henderson said.
“Most everything to do with earthquakes and tsunamis is knowledge,” she said. “Whether it comes in paper form, whether it comes in classes, whether it comes one on one or from me going out and talking to schools or doing drop cover and hold. When you start cutting programs that don’t let you get out there and teach, reach out to the schools and do these programs, that suffers.”
District 3 Supervisor Chris Howard, one of two county supervisors who traveled to Washington D.C. in June to discuss issues like Last Chance Grade and keeping Essential Air Service at the Del Norte County Airport, said the proposed cuts to the tsunami warning system are worrisome.
“I feel that any cuts associated with the tsunami warning system that could affect our area, which is extremely prone to tsunamis, is basically a slap in the face to rural communities,” he said.
Howard said he also remembers the 2011 tsunami and the “mass exodus” it spawned.
“All the way up 199 to Hiouchi and all the way up 101 to the vista point lookout, any spot you could find to pull over in were full of cars,” Howard said. “The community responded to it extremely well, but it also caused the mass exodus that left a lot of folks stranded in high country for awhile without resources.”
The March 11, 2011 tsunami wreaked $20 million in damage to the Crescent City Harbor and caused the death of one person locally. The tidal wave swept 25-year-old Dustin Weber from the mouth of the Klamath River.
But things would have been worse if it wasn’t for the DART system, Henderson said.
“Without that DART buoy system we might not have evacuated,” she said. “We also could have had people working on the boats down there. Lives could very well have been lost in that harbor.”