July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:30 PM
"From a distance, the small blue and white signs look like they could be any old highway marker on any back country road. Up close, however, the signs let drivers know that they definitely aren't in Kansas anymore.This week tsunami hazard zone signs went up near beaches all along the west side of Whidbey Island, warning that huge, powerful waves could flood the area anytime a large earthquake sets Puget Sound quivering. From French and Sills roads near Maxwelton Beach to Mutiny Bay in Freeland and Coronet Bay on North Whidbey, the signs warn locals and tourists that the best thing they can do in the event of an earthquake is to get away from the shoreline - fast.T.J. Harmon, coordinator of Island County Emergency Services, hopes everyone passing by the signs reads them and learns what to do in shoreline areas during an earthquake.Provided by the Washington State Tsunami Workgroup with funds from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Whidbey's 30 signs have good reason to be here, historically speaking. Harmon said geologists have found evidence of four tsunami episodes that took place at the shores of Whidbey Island in the distant past. The next one could come at any time, she said.Tsunamis can originate in a number of different ways on their way to Puget Sound. Least likely to hit Whidbey Island is a tsunami originating in the Western or Central Pacific Ocean. Major temblors in those regions tend to set off waves that strike the entire coastline, from California to Alaska. But the energy in those waves tends to ebb when they enter the Strait of Juan de Fuca.A more plausible tsunami scenario would follow a major quake along the Whidbey fault or in the North Cascadia subduction zone. Such an even could send in one of two types of waves: a single, towering tsunami, or a series of short, high speed waves. Both are destructive, Harmon said, and both can destroy property and kill people.While common sense would seem to be enough to keep people away from the Whidbey shoreline in the event of a major quake, Harmon said people have historically rushed to beaches and ports after major quakes to see tidelands and harbors emptied of water. The problem is that all that water often rushes back in a huge wave.Instead, Harmon said people should do what the signs say - get off the beach immediately. The quicker the better, because a tsunami can hit the beaches within five minutes of a local earthquake.To further educate the public, Washington state is posting signs at the island's ferry terminals and in Deception Pass State Park, explaining the island's geologic history. WSU Beach Watchers also give earthquake and tsunami seminars aboard the ferries operating between Keystone and Port Townsend.The emergency services office in the Island County Courthouse has pamphlets detailing tsunami safety procedures. The pamphlets will eventually be distributed to chambers of commerce around the island. For more information, call Harmon at emergency services at 678-4422."