Heed the warning.
Any discussion of tsunami preparedness on the Oregon Coast should start with recognition that that The Big One, whenever it comes, will kill people, perhaps a lot of them.
There is no such thing as a perfect preparedness plan for tsunamis or, for that matter, any natural disaster. There will always be the unexpected and unpreventable: warning sirens that malfunction, dispatchers who get confused, trucks that overturn and block intersections and numbheaded tourists who decide the shoreline is the best place for tsunami watching.
But a thorough, well-rehearsed and adequately funded emergency program can vastly reduce the inevitable panic, confusion and misinformation, and save hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives.
Unfortunately, Oregon doesn't have such a plan.
A blistering report issued last week by the Oregon Office of Emergency Management concludes that thousands of coastal Oregon residents didn't know what to do when a tsunami warning was issued June 14 and that many might have perished in an actual emergency.
If the threat weren't so real and potential consequences so severe, the report might provide the basis for a Keystone Cops remake. While a few communities such as Yachats, Cannon Beach and Seaside were well prepared, most were not. Residents, mayors, sheriffs, fire chiefs and dispatchers were confused about where to go - or even whether to go.
In Depoe Bay, firefighters responded to a warning on their pagers by loading up equipment and evacuating, leaving townspeople behind. Waldport officials hustled equipment to high ground but didn't evacuate or sound the city's sirens. Nor was there an evacuation order in Florence, where dispatchers didn't receive a warning from the county until 20 minutes after it had already been issued by the weather service. Lincoln City, regarded as a "tsunami ready" community, wasn't notified of the tsunami threat by the county's 911 dispatch center, and only one of the city's two sirens proved to be in working order.
Overall, the report found widespread failures in the state's emergency alert system caused by both technical glitches or misunderstandings about who should be issuing signals. Emergency officials, media, residents and tourists were confused by conflicting warning bulletins from the National Weather Service center in Alaska and another center in Hawaii. Emergency dispatch centers were flooded with public inquiries, making it it impossible to communicate with firefighters and police officers.
There was much more that went wrong, including traffic jams that blocked vital emergency access routes and people who, believe it or not, actually flocked to the beach hoping for an up-close look at a tsunami. Of the coast's entire population of 90,000 people, only 10,000 evacuated. Many people staying at state campgrounds were oblivious of the threat and, even if they had been aware, lacked knowledge of evacuation routes.
The tsunami scare - and Oregon's inadequate response - provide an opportunity to identify and fix problems. State and local officials already have taken some corrective measures, but much more remains to be done, including long-overdue congressional approval of federal assistance.
A bill co-sponsored by both Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith would provide $40 million per year through 2012 for much-needed improvements to tsunami detection and warning programs, as well as rescue and recovery programs. Meanwhile, Gov. Ted Kulongoski should sign a bill approved by the Legislature that directs state emergency officials to develop tsunami warning information and evacuation plans, and to establish a uniform tsunami warning signal.
Catastrophic tsunamis have hit the Northwest coast at least 13 times over the past 7,500 years - the last one less than 300 years ago. When the next one hits, Oregon should be ready. There may be no more false alarms.