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Rattling Oregon Coast History: 2005 Tsunami Scare Failures, Successes

Published 09/20/21 at 5:16 AM PDT
By Andre' GW Hagestedt

Rattling Oregon Coast History: 2005 Tsunami Scare Failures, Successes

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(Oregon Coast) - If you ever needed something to drive it into your head about the potential dangers of Oregon's offshore quakes, the night of June 14, 2005 was it. That night, around 7:30 p.m., an undersea earthquake rattled about 90 miles off the Northern California coast - the right magnitude to create a fairly nasty tsunami, but luckily the dynamics were different. Nothing arrived, and the whole thing was called off within 20 minutes in most places.

Luck, indeed. Another time down the road may not be so nice.

Back then, I was covering this for another publication, just a year before the invention of Oregon Coast Beach Connection. It wasn't as serious a threat as what would later come in 2011 ( with another minor one in 2009), but the result was a series of warnings and watches for a tsunami all up and down Oregon's coastline, with officials taking little chances and hitting the sirens to cue folks to head for the hills.

Oregon Emergency Management (OEM) wrote an After Action Report on the tsunami warning and gave the responses in general a poor grade. As I talked to a myriad of people around the coastline about this, you'll get an idea why.

All the quotes and people interviewed here were in their positions at the time, though most are not now.

By some accounts, it didn't go badly in many ways. But as Seaside's Mike Exinger put it: "Depending on whom you talk to, it either went really well, OK, or it sucked."

Sirens shot off in Seaside, Cannon Beach, Manzanita, Rockaway, Pacific City, Neskowin, Waldport and Yachats, but apparently spots like Gleneden Beach (just south of Lincoln City), Depoe Bay and Lincoln City got no warning noises. Meanwhile, Newport - which had no sirens then - is generally high enough that officials only evacuated low-lying beaches. Lincoln City officials tried to fire off the sirens, but they were defective and didn't make a peep.

Valerie DiBlasi, co-owner of Depoe Bay-area restaurant Italian Riviera, wasn't happy about the lack of warning.

"We found out through one of our employees' mothers," DiBlasi said. "She called the restaurant about 20 minutes into the warning. Our restaurant and all of us could have been under water by then."

Lori Fowler, of Depoe Bay, noticed her family rabbits doing something strange. Without cable TV or being near the bay, she heard nothing of it until later in the evening.

Lucy Gibson, of the Oregon Coast Visitors Association back then in Newport, was one of those who zipped out onto the beaches on an ATV to warn people. "What did shock me, though, were the number of people that had packed into Yaquina Bay State Park," she said. "Looking up there from the beach, I could not believe the sheer number of people who were lined up along the viewpoints. Don't these folks realize they needed to get away from the water's edge - not run to it?"

In Seaside, hotelier Heather Wadkins said her guests took the evacuation in stride - for the most part. She also watched what she called the "helpful spirit of strangers" with some assisting others, especially the elderly.

Gary Turel, of Seaside Helicopters, called it "an interesting evening."

"I took the helicopter up to watch the event unfold and confirm no big waves inbound - not that I could have stopped one," Turel said. "The evacuation routes were packed. The east to the mountains seemed a little plugged, but 101 south, out of town, seemed to move more quickly."

In Cannon Beach, humor seemed to pepper the event for many. One spokesperson for the Chamber of Commerce said: "I think for every two people there was a dog - which was so Cannon Beach."

The Van Buren Lighthouse Inn's Nikkol Nagle had never seen such an evacuation and said she was rather awed by the whole thing. She escaped to somewhere just up Highway 26.

"My whole neighborhood ended up being there - most veterans to the tsunami evacuation process," Nagle said. "They weren't worried too much and it was great that several of them had been through this all before. They said after the tsunami hit in the ‘60s, Cannon Beach had evacuations all the time.

"A little time had passed and three cars full of 20-something Australian travelers pulled over to find out what was going on. Once they knew it was a tsunami alert they pulled out the lawn chairs and malt beverages and made a date out of it."

In the Nehalem Bay area, the San Dune Inn's Brian Hines lamented the fact it hit just as he was getting ready to visit the bathroom. He and his wife Billie grabbed the three dogs and drove up the hill to the viewpoints on Neahkahnie. On their way, they realized they'd left the stove on and hurried back to take care of that.

"101 was a shambles and cars were parked bumper to bumper at the overlooks. People with video cameras had them pointed out to sea," he said.

Just about everyone seemed to learn something, however - especially the need for creating emergency kits. Hines, Nagel and Tillamook County tourism official Jill Brewer - a Manzanita resident - echoed the same sentiment.

"I think I'll go home and get my emergency kit together and maybe look at some other city's tsunami maps," said Brewer. Her roommate was Darci Connor, who was until just before the event Seaside's tsunami education coordinator. Just after the scare, Seaside mayor Gary Larson had enormous praise for her.

Not everyone learned something or took it too seriously, however. Reports abounded of some running towards the beach to check things out. Then there's Wheeler businessman Garry Gitzen, who only heard about it from a friend while in Nehalem. He took the opportunity to make light of it. "I came back to Wheeler and stood out on the highway with my kayak paddle, and paddled and stuck out my thumb," he said. "80 percent of those driving by laughed."

OEM had much more stern words in the report later that year, noting how the public itself was partially to blame for not taking this seriously. However, communication with the media was poor and many emergency management systems did not work properly. OEM also blasted how many people were unaware they could make it to tsunami safe zones faster if they had not taken their cars, as Hines noted.

OEM said:

Tsunami siren at Cannon Beach

“Problems involving emergency operations surfaced during this event that demonstrate the importance of well developed tsunami specific evacuation plans, robust communication infrastructure to insure dependable redundancy, regular drills and updated training for all emergency staff, and coordinated local, regional and state roles during tsunami warnings.”

The agency did note most Oregon coast towns had fairly decent evacuations, all the way down south, including Bandon, Port Orford and Gold Beach.

This was the event that changed everything, however. Signage and public education were amped up, hotels contained evacuation procedures, and the next big scare in 2011 went much smoother.

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