Tsunami warning signs tempt thieves
July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:41 PM
"Maybe it's the tragicomic allure of the stick man running away from monster waves, or maybe it's the way the white sketching stands out against the azure background. Or you could simply chalk it up as another weird epidemic of old-fashioned American delinquency and thievery.Whatever the motivation, some folks just love to steal those tsunami warning signs planted on shorelines around Whidbey Island. More than 100 have been lifted from Island County beaches since the first batch went up between September 1999 and January 2000. That at a cost of $125 for each sign replaced.The signs themselves are easy to decipher. They warn you, in no uncertain terms, to run like crazy if you happen to see an abnormally large wall of water coming your way. What's not so easy to decipher is why, in the not-quite-honorable act of running away, so many people feel compelled to take the sign with them.It all started in September 1999, when county workers put up a batch of 40 Tsunami signs - 20 circular in design, and 20 rectangular - in numerous low-lying areas around the island. They were placed in spots that emergency services officials from local and state agencies have deemed especially vulnerable to the sudden onslaught of killer waves generated by earthquakes. Within days, the signs were gone. All of them.It didn't take a criminal psychologist to figure out that the signs had been filched, though not a one has ever been recovered. What so confounded and angered emergency services officials was the scope as well as the seemingly conspiratorial nature of the theft. Various theories have begun to proliferate.They are classy signs, admits Debbie Banta, program manager for IslandCounty Emergency Services. Banta also guesses that, along with such aesthetic considerations, the wayward prompting of human nature played a significant contributing factor in the widespread heists.They were there, Banta says, paraphrasing the old saw explaining why so-and-so climbed the mountain. It was a new phenomenon, she adds. It provided a challenge to someone.Despite these mitigating hypotheses, Banta is miffed over such behavior.I don't understand the mindset, says Banta. They're road signs, for heaven's sake. What in the world are you going to do with them? Lest anyone get too amused over all of this, keep in mind that tsunami sign-stealing is not simply an act of vandalism to government property, punishable as a misdemeanor and carrying a fine of up to $250. Getting caught stealing multiple signs could, in certain cases, lead to a felonyarrest. It also poses a potential risk to public health. On the scale of antisocial behavior, it rates just a notch or two below the destruction of stop signs.And because stolen signs need to be replaced as quickly as possible, it's expensive to both state and county employees. Emergency Services Deputy Director T.J. Harmon estimates that, factoring in labor, it cost the government about $125 to replace each stolen sign. It's very unfortunate, says Harmon. They're literally stolen as quickly as we put them up again.Harmon says sign thefts on the island compare to somewhere over several thousand statewide. Other participants in the tsunami-awareness project include Pacific, Grays, Harbor, Clallam and Jefferson counties. The program is funded by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration).For both Harmon and Banta, the nagging irony in all of this is that, after the first wave of Tsunami sign theft, the state implemented a free poster campaign in the hopes of deterring people from going after the real thing. In both size and design, the posters are exact duplicates, and have been widely distributed to public schools in targeted areas.Along with these giant poster, the state also printed up a batch of little refrigerator magnates and peel-off stickers that give the 3-step process of How To Escape A Tsunami (basically a drop, then run uphill, then wait for the all-clear signal schematic.) We went ahead with the poster campaign prior to putting (replacement) signs back up, said Banta. She claims that the campaign, which cost the state about $2,000 and involved a big push in the local media, was quite successful at first. For a while, the thefts ceased.Harmon, however, isn't quite so upbeat about the long-term results of the campaign. They're still disappearing, she said when asked about the current state of affairs. It's maybe slowed down a little bit.On a slightly more positive note - at least for residents of Whidbey Island - Harmon is of the mindset that it's mostly visitors who just find the signs irresistible. The basis for this opinion, she said, is the rather astounding fact that not a single sign has been recovered, much less spotted. We really believe it's not our local people who are to blame, Harmon said.Banta does note, however, that most comments about how classy the signs look came from teenagers. She is unsure of the implications of this observation. Whatever sort of profile past culprits might fit - young or old, male or female, cunning or not so cunning - Banta would like to send a message out to the citizens of the Pacific Northwest: We still have plenty of posters if people want them. "