If you were anywhere near downtown Edmonds on Thursday morning, chances are you heard a loud, modulated wailing coming from the direction of the fishing pier. If you’ve ever lived in a tsunami zone, you know that sound – it means get to high ground as quickly as possible. (Hear the sound by clicking here.)
Rather than alerting about an actual hazard, Thursday’s warning was part of the regular annual test of the more than 120 tsunami warning sirens (officially known as All Hazards Alert Broadcast – AHAB for short – siren) in Washington state and part of a coordinated exercise to not only test the equipment but also help raise awareness of the potential for natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis in our state and more importantly, how to be ready when they strike.
“The most important thing about today’s exercise is helping folks understand that these events can happen here, and to take some simple measures to be prepared,” stressed Chuck Wallace, safety and disaster coordinator for the City of Edmonds, who invited residents to join him in listening to the siren Thursday. “My hope is that this can serve as a conversation starter where families might sit down over the dinner table and talk about what they’d do in these kinds of events — How will we communicate? Where will we be? Do we have a place to meet if phones don’t work and we’re cut off? Do we have a supply of drinking water at home and in our cars?
“It’s important – and potentially life-saving – to think about these things beforehand’” he added. “The main thing is to have the conversation.”
Wallace also pointed out that tsunamis are typically generated by earthquakes that occur underwater or close to large bodies of water; inland earthquakes typically don’t result in tsunamis. He then went on to explain that the Edmonds area is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis since our city sits right on top of the South Whidbey Island fault.
“It’s a relatively shallow fault that’s right on our doorstep,” he explained. “This means that any earthquakes generated through fault motion or slippage will likely set off tsunamis that could hit our beaches within minutes of the quake and would potentially be accompanied by numerous aftershocks. So when you hear the siren, it’s critical to get to high ground immediately.”
Wallace also said to look for new signage to be installed in the near future that will identify areas of Edmonds likely to be inundated in the event of a tsunami. Many other vulnerable communities have these already, and they are a great way for residents to become aware of which local areas are likely to be most affected in these events.
Wallace also stressed the importance of understanding the nature of these events and how they unfold.
“It’s perfectly normal to experience aftershocks – sometimes many minutes after the main quake,” he explained. “These don’t mean Armageddon – aftershocks are just a normal part of how earthquakes play out. But by the same token, don’t underestimate. A 1-foot wave kicked up by a tsunami may seem pretty insignificant, but don’t think you can go wading in it – it has enough power to pick up cars and throw them around like toys.”
He went on to explain that because Puget Sound is a basin and not an uninterrupted expanse of water like the ocean, tsunami waves will bounce back and forth between the shorelines like water in a tub, and this can continue for some time. In addition to the obvious shoreline hazards, this creates eddies and whirlpools throughout the Sound that pose a particular hazard to navigation for anyone out on the water.
“But once again, my bottom-line message today is to be aware and be prepared,” he concluded. “Have fresh water on hand, have a plan and discuss it with your family. Be ready just in case.”
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel