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Tsunami Awareness Week: When a Tsunami hits, the Only Way Out will be by Water

Tsunami Awareness Week: When a Tsunami hits, the Only Way Out will be by Water

Helping improve tsunami awareness and safety

By Eric Scigliano, Washington Sea Grant

In early 2015 Ian Miller, Washington Sea Grant’s coastal hazards specialist, lit a fire under two vital marine safety operations based on a three-mile sandspit called Ediz Hook that arcs around the Olympic Peninsula town of Port Angeles, where Miller is based. The question wasn’t how they would protect other people, Miller told the Puget Sound Pilots and the U.S. Coast Guard’s Air Station/Sector Field Office Port Angeles. It was how they would save themselves the next time an offshore earthquake sends a tsunami crashing into the coast, as earthquakes do here every few hundred years. The last struck in 1700. 

The road out of Ediz Hook, lined by older buildings. Ediz Hook, Port Angeles, Washington, 2015. Image: Eric Scigliano, Washington Sea Grant.

Not only would Ediz Hook be inundated; it would likely be a death trap for anyone trying to flee on its single narrow roadway. “You guys can’t assume you will be able to drive off,” Miller told about 150 assembled seamen and aviators in a visit last September. In the unlikely event the road didn’t buckle or sink, the 96-year-old paper mill overhanging it would collapse; ruptured fuel tanks and downed power lines might create an inferno. “The road off the Hook might”—Miller phrased it gently “be impassable. The way to survive might be a little counterintuitive. It might be going out to deeper water”—50 fathoms deep, where the big wave would roll harmlessly under them.

Counterintuitive indeed, but Miller has the expertise to back up his warning: a doctorate in oceanography, a background in geomorphology and years of experience tracing signs of past tsunamis including the wash-up from Japan’s recent Tōhoku earthquake. The message he delivered in early 2015 sank in first with the pilots. Last March they conducted a trial evacuation, using one of the two 70-foot boats they keep ready at all hours to board the freighters and tankers they guide through Puget Sound’s narrow passages. “It took us two hours to get loaded and off,” the pilots’ vice president, Eric vonBrandenfels, recounted afterward. “At that point we’d be under 30 feet of water.” A tsunami would reach Ediz Hook within one hour of an earthquake in the offshore subduction zone. 

Ian Miller coaching USCG on Ediz Hook, Port Angeles, Washington, 2015. Image: Eric Scigliano, Washington Sea Grant.

Nevertheless, the pilot boats are the best option available; the Coast Guard’s cutters are larger but take much longer to get manned and underway. By autumn the Coasties were ready to join the pilots in another trial. Under the station’s flag pole, Miller delivered a pep talk with a personal twist: “I live in Port Angeles. I want you guys to be safe. More important, I want you to be functional so you can save me and my family.” 

A small contingent hustled down to the pilots’ dock, boarded, and cast off. They rounded the hook and reached 50 fathoms in 16 minutes — promising, but no assurance that a larger contingent could flee fast enough amid post-earthquake chaos. VonBrandenfels figures 150 to 200 people might pack onto each pilot boat with no room left for food, water or life jackets. That’s still well short of the base’s total manning, not to mention personnel at a nearby fish farm and a planned pier for naval submarine-escort vessels, plus any sightseers who happen to be on the spit when disaster strikes.

After the drill, Coast Guard Lieutenant Kyle Cuttie surveyed the scene and mused, “We’re probably one of the worst-exposed sites on the entire West Coast.” But at least he and his comrades now know the danger, and the route they’ll have to take to escape it, thanks to Washington Sea Grant’s Ian Miller.

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