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Paying Attention Before the Sea Turns Violent

Tsunami Planning Tests Emergency Procedures


Sitting atop a mesa facing the Santa Barbara Channel, it may seem unlikely that UC Santa Barbara would ever face the earthquake-generated surge of seawater known as a tsunami. However, a close look at government inundation maps of the south-facing topography of this section of coastline reveals that the campus could be cut off if a 10-foot tsunami simultaneously surged up the Goleta Slough to the east and the Devereux Slough on the west.

From the maps, the energy of a series of tsunami waves—the initial one is not usually the most powerful, experts note—could push mud and debris to Hollister Avenue and Los Carneros Road, and smash past Highway 217 and part of the way up Atascadero Creek. It would likely flood the UCSB Lagoon and Santa Barbara Airport, return the Goleta sewage treatment plant to island status, and destroy Goleta Beach County Park and adjacent businesses.

Vic Cox

Though the odds of such an event are generally low, the possibility was sufficient reason for the campus Environmental Health and Safety Department years ago to begin preparing for the worst that could hit its roughly 30,000 staff, faculty, and students. This led the National Weather Service in 2004 to declare that UCSB was “tsunami-ready” and “storm-ready,” the first higher education campus in the nation to be so certified.

“And we are still the only tsunami-ready campus,” reports UCSB emergency manager Jim Caesar. “We were just recertified last year.”

Essentially this means the institution or locality has redundant communication systems to alert inhabitants of imminent danger and strives to educate the public as well as first responders about proper behavior in a tsunami emergency. The university’s alert system—mainly personal email, text messages, and wireless phones—currently reaches 38,000 registered users with advisories and warnings, Caesar said.

A plan for dealing with the potential consequences of the tsunami is mandatory for the federal certification. At UCSB that includes handling invading oil from offshore seeps as well as broken sewage, gas, and power lines.

Local law enforcement, fire departments, and the Red Cross are important elements in alerting and responding to tsunamis and other emergencies. Caesar interacts with all of them as well as with the county’s Office of Emergency Services and various cities, including Goleta and Santa Barbara. He said that starting about midnight the day of the Sendai quake he fielded calls from many agencies about the advancing tsunami which, fortunately, arrived at low tide and produced minimal wave surges locally.

At high tide the waves could’ve been as much as six feet higher along the South Coast, explained retired UCSB marine geophysicist Ken MacDonald.

Other factors affect the specific threat of tsunamis to low-lying coastal communities, particularly those bordering the seismically active Pacific Ocean, the scientist added. These include the subsea slope of the beach, the type of the earthquake, and its strength. As the 9.0-magnitude temblor off Japan demonstrated on March 10, a powerful shaking can do damage nearly 5,000 miles away, a hard fact for Crescent City and Santa Cruz.

Caesar, a Goleta Valley resident since the 1960s, said that in addition to a long-distance quake, he plans for two other scenarios with varying alert times: a coastal shaker that causes an undersea landslide, like that of Alaska in 1964, or a major earthquake in the Santa Barbara Channel, which could produce enough energy between the coast and the Channel island chain to “slosh water like it was in a bathtub,” he said.

MacDonald agreed that a 7.0-magnitude quake—geologists consider this the strongest temblor that local faults might generate—could send waves back and forth across the channel, but said that this would also dissipate the energy more quickly. In any case, both men urged residents to educate and safeguard themselves and their loved ones. “We really have only two ways in or out of this area,” observed Caesar.

Quakes and tsunamis are not the only emergencies for which locals should prepare, as three major wildfires in 2008-09 proved. To learn about some local readiness programs, check out the bilingual Web site for Goleta Prepare Now..

Individual emergency training is also available for those who live and work in the Goleta area. Spaces remain open in the free classes to be held at the Goleta Valley Community Center every Wednesday night between April 6 and May 25. A CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) application for those 18 and over can be downloaded from the Goleta Prepare Now site or picked up at City Hall.

As Caesar grimly noted, “The Japanese quake added urgency to our own training.”

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