CITYWIDE — The devastating tsunami that wreaked havoc on the island nation of Japan, contributing to what is accepted as the second worst nuclear disaster in human history, left an impact across the globe.

Its effects were felt even in the United States, claiming the life of an unwary onlooker in northern California and smashing boats in harbors along the coastline.

Santa Monica was mostly spared from the effects, and saw only a tsunami watch and high waves.

As for many coastal towns, however, the event became a call to arms, and one of the first tasks of the newly-created Office of Emergency Management under director Ken Semko.

According to a staff report, the majority of Santa Monica is protected from potentially destructive waves by a series of bluffs north of the Santa Monica Pier and the distance between the ocean and development south of the pier.

However, an “inundation zone” that includes all beaches, the area north of the pier below the bluffs and south of the pier east to Fourth Street and south to the Venice Border are at risk.

Experts from the National Weather Services, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, California Geological Survey, California Emergency Management Agency and the University of Southern California predict that there could be “ankle deep water on Main Street south of Pico Boulevard.”

Under that premise, officials felt comfortable with the assumption that a tsunami could damage or disrupt roadways, take out power and communications systems, release toxic pollutants from the Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility into the water and result in property damage and even death.

The Tsunami Response Plan that emerged in response to that threat built on three pillars: Notification, evacuation and communications.

The first, notification, is dependent on nature. Santa Monica is likely to be hit by a distant-source tsunami, meaning a powerful series of waves caused by an earthquake far offshore, according to a city staff report.

Tsunami Warning Centers like those in Alaska can detect those earthquakes and put residents on alert.

A near-source tsunami, like that which struck Japan, happens closer to shore and requires people to get out much faster.

Once a tsunami warning has been declared, residents can get to higher ground using the selected evacuation routes picked out by blue signs in the inundation zone.

Primary evacuation routes include the Santa Monica Freeway, Marine Street and Colorado, Pico and Ocean Park boulevards.

The idea is to get to higher ground, and safety, in as orderly a way as possible, Semko said.

“You don’t have to go south on PCH to be safe, you just need to get to higher ground,” Semko said, adding that if people follow the evacuation routes and go in the same direction, it will be easier for all involved to get to safety.

The communications segment, in particular, relies heavily on the new SMAlerts system, a subscription-based service that sends text messages, e-mails and voicemails with emergency information.

Anyone can sign up for the service at

Other means of notification would be emergency vehicles with sirens roaming the streets and potentially door-to-door notifications.

That may not be enough, said concerned resident Reina Alvarez.

“We need a siren, so that people who are hard of hearing or heavy sleepers can wake up, get out and move, because we do live by the coast and it’s probable that something like this could happen,” she said at the Dec. 6 City Council meeting.

Councilmember Bob Holbrook supported the horn system, particularly one like that in Eugene, Ore. used to call back drunken football fans which he said “could wake the dead.”

“If we just had a horn that went off and woke people up, knowing it would be the reason, that would be a relatively simple thing,” Holbrook said.

A siren system was considered, but ultimately determined to be too expensive and difficult to maintain, Semko said. They did not look into the possibility of a fog horn.

Nature does have its own tsunami warnings, including a loud, booming noise and dramatic recession of the water line before the swell.

Although the plan will keep residents safe, those nearest the water could see their property destroyed.

Many may be covered for the event of a tsunami without knowing it, said local insurance agent Dave Rosenberg.

Tsunamis stem from earthquakes, and fall under the purview of earthquake insurance, which 60 to 65 percent of his clients already have.

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