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Just A Drill 

Local responders rehearse for Cascadia event

click to enlarge Local trucks moved to high ground. - PHOTO BY ZACH ST. GEORGE
  • Photo by Zach St. George
  • Local trucks moved to high ground.

Loaders, tractors, and dump trucks lined 7th Streets above Arcata City Hall on Friday morning, buffered by orange traffic cones where they stuck out into the bike lane. It was a hasty job. Truck beds were left open. Windows were left cracked. An Ingersoll Rand compressor sat with its hitch against the ground, and a round-nosed shovel under the wheels kept it from rolling down the hill.

News of the tsunami in Japan sent government workers across the county scrambling to prepare. "We had a big drill," said Arcata City Manager Randy Mendosa. It wasn't just a drill though, because it wasn't just a false alarm.

Arcata Street Superintendent Kim Watson heard about the Japanese earthquake on Thursday night before he went to bed. "I knew we'd have an early start," he said. Someone at the Arcata Department of Public Works called him at 5:30 a.m. Friday to make it official. Watson and five other City workers needed to move the City's heavy equipment and backup vehicles from the storage yard on South G Street, which lies within the possible inundation zone, up to higher ground.

Back and forth they drove from the yard, in yellow Caterpillar loaders and green John Deere tractors, and gold-decaled City trucks dragging trailers, one with a Porta-Potty strapped to it. On the way back they drove an old police car. By the time the waves hit the beach at around 7:30 a.m., the crew had parked between 30 and 40 vehicles safely near Arcata City Hall. "For a local event," said Mendosa, "we wouldn't have had time to do what we did here."

Watson said they were preparing for the worst-case scenario. Heavy equipment came first, followed by other, less crucial vehicles, like the trailer with the Porta-Potty. The main goal wasn't to keep City property dry, he said, but rather to be ready. "That was just so we had the means to respond in a big event."

The big event he was referring to is a Cascadia fault earthquake, said Troy Nicolini, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "That's the one we plan for," he said. The Pacific Plate, the Juan de Fuca Plate and the North American Plate meet to form the Cascadia subduction zone, which runs from Northern California up past Vancouver in British Columbia. The energy created by the Pacific Plate pushing the Juan de Fuca plate under the North American Plate could generate an earthquake of a magnitude 9.0 or bigger, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The fault is only about 50 miles from the northern California coast.

HSU geology professor and tsunami expert Lori Dengler said, "Someday we will have a big earthquake here, followed 10 to 15 minutes later by a tsunami." She said help from outside would be slow to arrive, both because of the likely damage to larger population centers like Seattle, Vancouver and Sacramento, and because Humboldt's physical links with the outside are fragile. "There's no question in my mind that you won't be able to drive in or out on any of our roads," said Dengler. "It could easily be two weeks before you got assistance."

The Sheriff's Office of Emergency Services -- in charge of planning for local disasters and coordinating the various government agencies in the response -- uses maps modeling possible inundation in a tsunami. The maps are the reason for the "Entering tsunami hazard zone" signs dotting the coast. The good news is, said Nicolini, "No home in McKinleyville, very few homes in Arcata will be flooded. The vast majority of homes in Eureka will be fine."

That still leaves the residents of Manila, Samoa, the Arcata Bottoms and Eurekans living west of the 101, which is why local government took Friday's run-through so seriously. Public Information Officer Brenda Godsey at the Sheriff's office said that calling the Friday morning efforts a drill was wrong. "Unless there is a really huge effect people tend to discount it and say, ‘oh, it's just a drill,'" said Godsey. "We have to be prepared for what we know could happen."


In Trinidad, a crowd joined the fire department near the lighthouse to watch the waves come in. Earlier that morning, volunteer firefighters knocked on the doors of houses close to the water to warn the inhabitants of the tsunami and blocked off roads to the beaches. "I know I sent out like 100 texts when I heard about it first thing in the morning," said City Clerk Gabe Adams. "It was pretty piece-of-cake," he said of getting the word out.

"Trinidad is a rockin' little harbor to experience something like this," said Adams. The crowd watched as the tsunami first pulled the water out below normal low tide, then pushed it back in feet above the normal high tide. Every half hour the tide switched, swinging the crab boats anchored to the reef. 

At Eureka's Woodley Island Marina, about two dozen fishing boats normally berthed in Crescent City are now temporarily crammed into empty slips. David Hull, chief executive officer of the Port of Humboldt, said officials here used the tsunami as a live exercise drill to perfect techniques they have been practicing since 2007. That was when about 50 local first-responders, using a Homeland Security grant, did a training that set the stage for greater integration of local responses.

"This was the first time all the alarms and alerts went smoothly," said Hull, adding ruefully that what had been a human disaster in Japan and an economic catastrophe in Crescent City, had been a drill for Humboldt.

"It really worked out well for us," he said.

(Journal editor Tom Abate contributed to this report.)


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Zach St. George

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