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Long Beach’s 2nd annual tsunami-evacuation walk, resource fair simulates emergency scenario and urges residents to be prepared for such a disaster

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Photos by Denny Cristales | Signal Tribune
The Tsunami Evacuation Walk and Resource Fair on March 17 included a walk route, which simulated the evacuation of residents from a distant tsunami that is flooding the city. In the mock scenario, Will Rogers Mini Park was deemed the inundation zone, the area where flooding is visible, and the group's destination at the Recreation Park Community Center was a safe zone.

Most Californians are worried about the “big one” erupting throughout the state and causing widespread seismic damage to infrastructure and injuring or taking human lives. However, the ramifications of such a potential earthquake, perhaps off-shore, could have ripple effects that manifest into a tsunami.

A tsunami is a series of strong waves that strikes in large volumes. According to experts at a tsunami-evacuation event last Saturday, a tsunami is an average of five to six feet, with a force comparable to a human being repeatedly throwing themselves at someone.

In such a natural disaster, are residents ready?

The City of Long Beach’s Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Communications Department, the Long Beach Fire Department and experts from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES), Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sought to inform the public about being prepared at the 2nd annual Tsunami Evacuation Walk and Resource Fair event on March 17.

Long Beach 3rd District Councilmember Suzie Price hosted the event at Will Rogers Mini Park ahead of California’s Tsunami Awareness Week from March 26 to March 30.

“It lets people know that we have plans in place and departments here committed to educating people on what to do when we have emergency disasters, whether it be a tsunami, an earthquake and any other kind of emergency,” Price told the Signal Tribune on Saturday. “Educating ourselves helps us prepare for the various types of emergencies.”

Allie Bright, the City of Long Beach’s disaster-preparedness analyst, explained to the Signal Tribune that the tsunami-walk route simulates an evacuation for a distant tsunami that is causing flooding in the city.

The walk began at Will Rogers Mini Park, which, in this mock scenario, was called the inundation zone, an area in which the flooding of the tsunami is visible. Moving out of the park, the group walked through the Colorado Lagoon bridge and arrived at its destination at the Recreation Park Community Center, where experts from SCEC, FEMA and the OES provided more information about tsunamis. The group then walked back to the “inundation zone,” where the event concluded.

“It’s just showing people some possible routes in their neighborhood that they can take, explaining what an inundation zone is, kind of what a tsunami is [and] what we would expect in Long Beach,” Bright said.

Price stressed the significance of residents signing up for Alert Long Beach notifications so they can be informed of any emergency warnings in the area and how to respond accordingly. Sign-ups to Alert Long Beach are at longbeach.gov/disasterpreparedness/alert-long-beach.

The good news for the ill-prepared is that getting ready for all disasters, such as earthquakes, explosions or floods, simply involves applying the same strategy— packing a first-aid kit, complete with medicines, a flashlight, power sources, food and water. Preparing for one disaster means being prepared for any disaster, said Reggie Harrison, director of the City of Long Beach’s Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Communications Department, in an interview with the Signal Tribune.

He advised packing enough supplies to at least be self-sustained for seven days.

“We’re only going to be as impactful as our residents are prepared,” Harrison said. “Our first-responders are going to find themselves in situations that won’t allow them to get all across the city. There will be pockets of areas that are not going to be easy to get into, especially when you talk about a tsunami that’s going to wipe out a lot of the road, infrastructures, so even getting an ambulance into an area is going to be difficult. So, we encourage neighborhoods to be self-sustaining.”

During the City of Long Beach’s 2nd annual Tsunami Evacuation Walk and Resource Fair event on March 17 at Will Rogers Mini Park, Jake Heflin, the Long Beach Fire Department’s public-information officer, said every dollar spent in emergency preparedness is equivalent to $7 to $10 in response and recovery. Any individual who takes the time to be ready for a natural disaster would be relieving pressure off the fire department in that situation, Heflin said.

Harrison emphasized that, if a natural disaster did strike and evacuation was the best option, the efficient method of escape is to use a bike, not any type of vehicle, because the streets would become inundated with residents trying to flee.

He said Long Beach is a complex city in terms of disasters, because of its significant infrastructures— one of the largest ports in the country, an airport and downtown destination— and, notably, earthquake fault lines that run throughout the city. These are the things Harrison’s department is aware of when it comes to anticipating the consequences of a disaster.

The City is also working on Map Your Neighborhood, a program that would allow residents to literally map out their surroundings and identify the resources and risks in their community.

“Part of the understanding is knowing who are the plumbers in their neighborhood, who are the electricians, who are the nurses, the doctors, who are the teachers?” he said. “Those are resources that, if neighborhoods recognized are there, they can create a plan for how they are going to be able to help others, such as some of the neighbors who would be at risk, like the elderly, like people who are dependent on electrical, medical needs or for kids that are home alone. Neighbors that are understanding the resources and the risks are going to better prepare them in the event of a major emergency or disaster.”

The program will begin its pilot next month, Harrison said.

Based on multiple studies, every dollar spent on preparedness equates to saving $7 to $10 in response and recovery, according to Jake Heflin, Long Beach Fire Department public-information officer. Heflin told the Signal Tribune that protecting one’s family from harm in a natural disaster is an independent decision.

“The individual has to take action,” he said. “They can learn about this stuff, and this is a great event to learn the information, but when you go home after the event, really what it boils down to is, ‘Are you going to take the steps to get ready?'”

In the event of a large-scale, catastrophic disaster, Heflin admitted that the fire department would be overwhelmed in such a scenario. He assured that officers will respond when and where they are needed, but serving a large city would require extra manpower.

“We live in a city of a half a million people, and we have roughly about 124 firefighters on-duty every day,” Heflin said. “If you do the quick math, that’s roughly one firefighter for 5,000 residents. There’s no way that we will be able to support the community when disaster strikes to the degree that they expect. We will provide those services to those areas— we talk about triage, doing the greatest good for the greatest number— so a lot of services and resources that we will provide are going to be at the hospitals, the high-rises, the schools, where there are multiple large numbers of people. That’s about doing the greatest good for the greatest number. What we have though is […] our bedroom communities and our other community areas and groups that need help too. They will rely on their neighbors. Neighbors helping neighbors will be a critical component of that first initial 24 to 48 hours until we get additional resources.”

Neighbors helping neighbors is something that involves a proactive approach versus a reactive approach, Heflin said, also emphasizing the importance of helping without being put into harm’s way. He praised programs such as the Community and Emergency Response Team (CERT), a free training that is offered in the community and educates the public about disaster preparedness. CERT is available in Signal Hill and Long Beach.

Heflin also offered residents a piece of advice he normally shares during community presentations— Grab a reusable bag, place an old pair of shoes and a flashlight inside of it, and tie it to the bed post. As an example, when an earthquake happens and then ends, at the base of the bed will be the essential belongings needed to go out deal with the impact of the incident.

“Many of the reports state that one of the No. 1 types of injuries that we have from earthquakes are cut feet from broken glass, because it happens at night, you roll out of bed, you step on glass, and now you are part of the problem and not the solution. Now somebody has to come and take care of you. These are small things that are easily attainable and achievable, but we have to start somewhere.”

Forrest Lanning, seismic-hazards program manager with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) region 9, told the Signal Tribune before the event that tsunami awareness is a relatively new concept that started gaining momentum in the minds of locals when the destructive 2011 off-shore Japan earthquake formed a tsunami that not only impacted Japanese citizens, but had ripple effects throughout the Pacific Rim. The impact of a tsunami that traveled from the opposite side of the Pacific resulted in some significant damage to property and land, such as Santa Cruz Harbor.

Reggie Harrison, director of the City of Long Beach Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Communications Department, said that he advises residents to pack enough emergency supplies in the event of a disaster so that they could sustain themselves for at least seven days. Harrison shared emergency advice with residents at Will Rogers Mini Park and at the Recreation Park Community Center for the City of Long Beach’s Tsunami Evacuation Walk and Resource Fair on March 17.

“So, that’s just a reminder of the potential that can happen,” he said. “You don’t get that many significant tsunamis, so it does fade out of people’s memories, it does fade out of people’s minds, and they don’t kind of realize that it’s a threat.”

If a tsunami had a chance to form at a closer source— say, Alaska— Southern Californians would have even less time to prepare for the potential series of waves that would be heading their way. However, the benefit of tsunamis, as opposed to earthquakes, is that warnings are issued hours before the threat arrives. A tsunami that stems from Alaska would still take about six to seven hours to arrive in LA County, Lanning said.

“So, there is warning, but there needs to be a mechanism on making sure everyone knows about that hazard when there is a tsunami on its way,” he said. “Thankfully, tsunamis offer a good amount of time in which we can alert people.”

Lanning said it’s essential that the major cities’ emergency-operations managers maintain excellent communication with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, one of two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tsunami centers in the United States.

Lanning explained that the center sends out different levels of alerts depending on the significance of the threat. For instance, a “watch” alert warns residents that there is a chance that a tsunami could be on its way, but it’s not certain, while a “warning” notifies of a high likelihood that a tsunami will strike the area.

The SCEC, based in USC, primarily studies how and why earthquakes occur and what their effects are on society. As communications manager for the SCEC, Jason Ballmann handles the “effects” side of the studies, in which he analyzes what the repercussions would be if a certain city endured an earthquake and what could be done to prepare for an event ahead of time.

Ballmann said Long Beach has a history of tsunamis, although they have not been “huge, devastating tsunamis.” The Los Angeles County Office of Emergency Management has a 2012 database of tsunami events that have occurred in the area, dating back to the 9th century, at bit.ly/2u8Mx1d.

He said the worst Long Beach could expect in a tsunami is about five to six feet of water.

“Imagine water about your height coming at you,” Ballmann told the Signal Tribune. “That’s a series of waves, not just one wave that is that height, but other waves that are that height too. We all want people here to be prepared for inevitable tsunamis. And, maybe it’s only going to be one or two feet, but that’s enough to create strong currents out in the bay of San Pedro, off the coast of downtown and the Alamitos Beach area and also at Alamitos Bay.”

Evacuation from a tsunami involves context. Boaters, for instance, or any other people who engage in maritime activities, ironically might have better luck going out into the ocean during a tsunami instead of going back to land, Ballmann said.

“It depends if you’re distant,” he said. “But, also, if you have time, you may want to take it back to the shore and evacuate by foot. […] Tsunamis start to rise in energy once they hit the slope, once they hit the coastal area. As they get closer to shore, they shoal, which means their energy has to go somewhere, so it rises up. If you’re out on a boat in the middle of the ocean, you won’t even feel a tsunami. It’ll just look like another passing wave. Most tsunamis are caused by big, undersea earthquakes and, when those plates shift underneath the ocean floor and shift up a bunch of water, that causes that water to go out radiately. It goes up vertically and goes out radiately all around. That’s how a tsunami is generated.”

Ballmann said residents can find more information at tsunami.org.

“We want people to bounce back as fast as possible— that’s called resilience,” he said. “If you’re prepared, then surviving an earthquake, surviving a tsunami, that’s the easy part. It’s doing everything ahead of time so that is the easy part. And, your recovery should even be easier.”

From left: Yvette LaDuke and Kevin Miller, with the California Governor’s Officer of Emergency Services; and Forrest Lanning, seismic-hazards program manager for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in region 9

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Long Beach’s 2nd annual tsunami-evacuation walk, resource fair simulates emergency scenario and urges residents to be prepared for such a disaster