Tsunami provokes discussion of Malibu’s emergency preparedness

Wave energy map of the tsunami that resulted from the 9.0 earthquake that struck off the northeastern coast of Japan Friday. Northern California experienced high tidal surges and effects from the tsunami. Photo courtesy of NOAA Center for Tsunami Research

The city’s emergency preparedness chief highlights earthquakes as the greatest concern.

By Knowles Adkisson / The Malibu Times

The scenes of destruction beamed worldwide from Japan after its massive earthquake and tsunami have raised the issue of Malibu’s vulnerability to tsunamis. But Brad Davis, who oversees the city’s Emergency Preparedness program, said the most pressing potential threat to Malibu would be a major earthquake.

Davis said the United States Geological Survey predicts a 99.7 percent chance of a magnitude 7.0 earthquake occurring along the San Andreas fault in the next 20 years.

“What we saw on television [in Japan] is an illustration of what a damaging earthquake is going to look like in a major metropolitan area,” Davis said.

There is no way to receive prior notice of an earthquake, but residents can prepare now by securing furniture and other heavy items that could move around in an earthquake.

“The number one source of injury in an earthquake is going to be flying objects like glass, appliances, roof tiles, lights,” Davis said.

Once an earthquake starts, it is imperative for people to duck, cover and hold on. The worst mistake one can make during a earthquake is to run outdoors if one is inside a building, he said.

People are “more likely to get squashed from something falling off the roof than anything else,” Davis said.

The county fire and Sheriff’s departments are responsible for first response after a disaster. But the city offers basic training in safety and lifesaving skills with its Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training program. Following earthquakes or other disasters such as wildfires or mudslides, communications failures, road blockages and high numbers of victims may prevent firefighters and Sheriff’s deputies from handling all emergency needs.

After a disaster, a document on the city’s Web site states, “People will need to rely on each other to meet the immediate lifesaving and life-sustaining needs, particularly in isolated neighborhoods that may be cut off from the main roads for a period of time.”

Davis encouraged Malibu residents to register their cell phone numbers with the city’s Connect-CTY program, which issues emergency alerts in the case of disasters. Davis said the city currently has all business and residential phone numbers, both listed and unlisted, in the database. Residents can register their cell phone numbers by clicking on the icon reading “Connect-CTY” at the bottom of the city’s home page at www.ci.malibu.ca.us.

Since practically all of Malibu’s 27 miles of coastline would be affected by a tsunami, it is natural for people to wonder about the effects of a potential tsunami. However, Davis cited recent studies prepared for Caltrans and other state agencies that show potential tsunami wave heights in Southern California to be half the size projected for the northern coastline.

Davis said the continental borderland, a series of offshore basins and ridges, shields much of the Southern California coast from possible tsunamis.

Kate Long, deputy program manager of the California Emergency Management’s Earthquake and Tsunami Program, said Southern California caught a break with this particular tsunami.

“The fact that we’re faced a little more southerly makes a difference from the Japanese source. If it was further south, Southern California might get it differently from Northern California [relative to Japan],” Long said.

But, Long said, a nearby offshore earthquake could potentially trigger a tsunami in Southern California similar to the one in Japan. The time interval between an earthquake and its resultant tsunami could be as little as 10 to 15 minutes, Long said, making it difficult to alert people to the danger. Long advised that if people who live along the coast feel an earthquake lasting longer than 40 seconds, they should immediately head for high ground as a precaution.

Davis agreed, and added that the other telltale sign of an impending tsunami is when water recedes from the shoreline and exposes areas of beach that are normally covered even during low tide.

“That’s an undeniable signal that you need to drop everything and get to high ground as quickly as possible,” Davis said.

The city council discussed the possibility of a tsunami warning system at its Oct. 27 meeting last year. Davis said in order to install an effective warning system, the city would have to install 12 pole-mounted sirens with amplifiers that would cost approximately $275,000 each, plus the cost of $10,000 to $20,000 per pole. The total cost would be between $3.4 million and $3.6 million. The council decided at that time to reconsider the issue in six months, which would mean April of this year.

Davis described the cost as “a lot of money for perceived risk … given the report we’ve had from the scientists, and the costs and the economy, the council’s reaction was that the wise move was to wait.”

Public Safety Commissioner Carol Randall said the commission would consider tsunami preparedness at its next meeting. Randall said she was in favor of a warning system, because she said there have been several minor tsunami events in the last few years.

Emergency preparation

The following information is sourced from the City of Malibu’s Web site.

Emergency phone numbers:

Fire, Sheriff Emergency: 9-1-1

City Hotline (road conditions and emergency updates): 310.456.9982

Sheriff Department: 310.456.6652

California Highway Patrol: 818.888.0980

Lifeguard (Zuma Beach): 310.457.2525

Malibu Urgent Care Center: 310.456.7551

American Red Cross: 800.540.2000

In the event of a natural disaster, television and radio broadcasts will be interrupted by special warning messages. Residents in affected areas will receive recorded announcements by telephone. There may be helicopters flying along the coastline giving the alert by loudspeaker. Lifeguards will be responsible for warning people on the beaches. The City’s Web site (www.ci.malibu.ca.us), cable television channel (TV-3) and radio station (1620 AM) will provide information and instructions.

You can prepare for an earthquake by strapping top-heavy furniture and appliances to walls, adding latches to kitchen cabinets, and securing TVs and other heavy objects that can topple and cause serious injuries.

If an earthquake hits, drop to the floor; take cover under a sturdy desk or table, and hold on to it firmly. Be prepared to move with it until the shaking stops. If you are not near a desk or table, drop to the floor against an interior wall and protect your head and neck with your arms. If you are in bed, hold on and stay there, protecting your head with a pillow.

There is a helpful checklist of earthquake precautions on the city’s web site titled “7 Steps to Earthquake Safety.” To view it, go to the “Emergency Preparedness” page, then click on the link “Emergency Preparedness Library.”

Should a tsunami hit, safe areas to evacuate to are Malibu Bluffs Park, Hughes Research Labs parking lot, Malibu Creek State Park, and Salvation Army camps (behind Tapia Park).

If you are near the coastline, an earthquake duration lasting more than 40 seconds may be your only warning of an approaching tsunami, so it is very important to act quickly to get to high ground. If the water recedes to expose areas of the beach that are normally covered, a tsunami is imminent.

Evacuation routes from coastal areas include Topanga Canyon Boulevard, Malibu Canyon Road, Kanan Road, Encinal Canyon Road and Mulholland Highway.

These radio stations carry news during emergencies: 980 AM, 1070 AM, and City of Malibu 1620 AM

Listen to the radio or watch television for emergency information and instructions about re-entry from local officials.

Never go to the beach to watch for, or to surf, a tsunami wave. Tsunami waves move extremely fast and have no face to surf on.