Coastal communities use weekend advisory to evaluate emergency plans

NORTH BEND, Ore. — Many communities across the west coast braced for a tsunami advisory after an underwater volcano exploded near the island nation of Tonga over the weekend. With several recent earthquakes in the Pacific Ocean, one coastal town is fine-tuning its emergency preparedness.

North Bend said it activated it’s Emergency Operations Center once it received the tsunami advisory. “We did have three hours or so to do good evaluations on just what actions we needed to take,” said North Bend Fire Chief Jim Brown. “All the department heads, including the mayor, got together and determined no evacuations were needed,” he said.

Chief Brown said it was great practice ahead of a future tsunami disaster. “It was an opportunity to really evaluate where we were at and be able to take care of our people the best way we could,” he said. Brown says all city leaders were able to identify parts of their emergency plan that needed at least some improvement.

The main improvement? Communication.

“We realized right off, getting our people into the Emergency Operations Center was a challenge. We ended up having to send the police department out to a couple of department heads houses, because they normally don’t keep their phones on,” he said, “We actually sent a police department out, they beat on their door in the middle of the night, and and then they came in. So that was one example of the things that we have the opportunity to improve upon.”

Luckily, the swells that hit the Oregon coast were small and North Bend didn’t have to perform any rescues. But advisories like this — make for good practice ahead of a future, potentially more dangerous emergency.

But not all coastal towns activated their emergency plans. The city of Brookings city manager Janell Howard said via statement:

“The City of Brookings has an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) that we activate during significant events, such as a tsunami, forest fire, etc.  We work closely with Curry County’s Emergency Manager Monica Ward to stay apprised of any updates that would change our posture.  As this was an Advisory, we chose not to activate our EOC but were prepared to do so if the Advisory was upgraded to a Watch or Warning.  The City manages and operates a siren in our fire tower that is connected to the county’s tsunami warning system and can be activated by us or remotely by the County’s Emergency Management.”

The state communications director Jonathan Modie also sent KOBI-TV a statement about the state’s response to the advisory:

“First, OHA recognizes that, tragically for the people of Tonga, the recent tsunami and volcanic eruption has caused damage and disruption. Though the activity triggered tsunami advisories for Oregon, we’re fortunate that the event did not affect us in the same way.

These events do give us a chance to help plan for more significant events in the future by allowing us test OHA’s health and medical notification systems. All indications are that these worked as planned over the weekend with our team:

  • We received notification of the tsunami advisory through our on-call duty officer at 6:51 am on Saturday, 1/15/22, through a call placed by OEM staff alerting the Duty Officer of 8 a.m. coordination call.
  • The duty officer then:
    • Checked official resources sources, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Tsunami Watch System, US Geological Survey (USGS), and major news outlet media to monitor the situation.
    • Notified Regional Emergency Coordinators (RECs) and OHA’s Health Security, Preparedness, and Response (HSPR) program leadership of the situation for awareness.
  • The Duty Officer attended  8am and 1pm Office of Emergency Management Coordination calls to provide situation update for Emergency Support Function 8 (health and medical) systems.
  • HSPR’s health care and public health regional emergency coordinators were also asked to notify coastal partners of threat and request that partners let the Duty Officer and REC know of any needs for assistance or situation status updates related to health and medical.
  • We also forwarded the tsunami advisory from federal partners to internal response staff and select coastal partners through the Oregon Health Alert Network. It was distributed by 8:09 a.m.
  • Finally, OHA monitored for emerging issues that could affect Oregon’s public health and health care systems that might rise to the level of needing state assistance through OpsCenter, our RECS, the Tsunami Warning System, and NOAA.

Just as state agencies prepare for major disasters, it’s important for each household to be prepared as well. We know that people at the local level are the first to experience a disaster, and the first to respond. To protect themselves, people who live, work or visit Oregon should learn about the different tsunami alert levels and the recommendations for each level, along with the location of tsunami hazard zones and official routes.”

Madison LaBerge is the anchor of NBC5 News Weekends at 6 and 11. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Madison is originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico. She loves living in the Pacific Northwest. She can't get over "how green everything is!" When Madison is not at work, she looks for new and exciting cooking recipes and explores Southern Oregon. Feel free to send her story ideas or the address of your favorite Mexican food restaurant!
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