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Another red flag.

Byline: The Register-Guard

If you live on the Oregon Coast and aren't worried about the lack of emergency preparedness for a potentially catastrophic tsunami, you haven't been paying attention. The red flags are all around.

The latest was hoisted Wednesday, when the National Weather Service accidentally issued a tsunami warning for parts of the Oregon Coast. The 10:16 a.m. warning activated the state's emergency alert system, interrupting TV and radio broadcasts along the coast, as well as Eugene, Portland and other locations.

As The Register-Guard's Winston Ross reported in a Thursday story, the false alarm prompted a whirlwind of activity. The many citizens who didn't catch an easy-to-miss reference to a "test" flooded phone lines at police and fire agencies, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, and TV and radio stations. Hotels began evacuating guests, and some local residents fled their homes.

Big oops. Turns out the federal agency was testing its internal systems and didn't intend for the bulletin to reach the public. Never mind. No need to worry about an onrushing wall of watery death and destruction. "It was an inadvertent mistake," a meteorologist explained.

Everyone makes mistakes, even - steady yourself - federal agencies. The problem with this mistake is that it undermines the message that state and local emergency officials have been trying to pound home for months - that if people hear a warning, they should head for high ground. Now. Without delay.

False alarms increase the likelihood that some coastal residents will react to the next warning by waiting for confirmation, or, as some did Wednesday, tying up phone lines and busying critically needed emergency service agencies by trying to confirm that the warning is real.

Another alert, on June 14, provided another flurry of red flags. Prompted by an actual earthquake off the northern California coast that failed to create a tsunami, the warning provoked widespread panic, confusion and misinformation.

A scathing report issued later by the state Office of Emergency Management concluded that flawed emergency preparedness left thousands of coastal residents not knowing what do and that many would have died in an actual emergency. The report found widespread failures in the state's emergency alert system, and emergency officials were bewildered by conflicting warning bulletins from different National Weather Service centers.

While a few communities were well prepared, most were not. In one city, firefighters loaded up equipment and evacuated. In another, officials moved emergency equipment to high ground but didn't evacuate city residents or sound sirens. In Florence, dispatchers didn't receive a warning from the county until 20 minutes after it had already been issued by the weather service.

Ironically, state legislators agreed Wednesday - the same day as this week's false alert - to create a special committee on emergency preparedness to review government plans for dealing with tsunamis and other potential disasters.

Wednesday's warning of the tsunami that wasn't, as well as an overview of emergency preparedness on the Oregon Coast, should be the first items on the new committee's agenda.

Catastrophic tsunamis have devastated the Northwest coast at least 13 times over the past 7,500 years, and the last one hit less than 300 years ago. When the next one arrives, Oregon must be prepared.

If it isn't, the price could prove unthinkably high.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Editorials; False alarm undermines emergency readiness
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Oct 21, 2005
Words:544
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