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Tsunami forum warns residents

If a tsunami were to strike Whidbey Island, it would be two to three meters high at the most. This means that most areas of Whidbey Island would be safe from the water, which can move at speeds of up to 600 mph in the open ocean.

At a forum Thursday at Skagit Valley College, faculty members gathered with community members to discuss the effects the Asian tsunami is having and the potential for a tsunami to hit locally.

“I felt like we as a community needed to do something,” event organizer Robyn Wynn said. “This was an opportunity for folks to be educated in a real way. I felt like this was an opportunity to be connected.”

For some at the forum, the connection was already present. Coupeville resident Linda Buskaba said she still has not heard from close friends or their children.

“There’s that feeling of you can’t know and you don’t know how to find out about them,” she said.

Buskaba has not had any communication with the family of four who ventured to one of the hardest-hit beaches in the Dec. 26 tsunami.

“The hardest part is knowing you’re just going to have to wait,” she said.

The great losses have led to great outpourings of support from around the world. But this has its hazards, said Lou LaBombard, Skagit Valley College professor of sociology.

“First-world nations say, ‘We will make you what we want you to be’ and that’s not necessarily a good thing,”he said.

Many of the organizations offering assistance will have to realize that they must conform to local customs and traditions, he said. It would not be appropriate to send beef to India, as the cow is a sacred animal, or corn, which is regarded as animal feed.

“Our very presence in those places will be socially detrimental,” LaBombard said.

A history of tsunami

The Japanese word “tsunami” translates to “harbor wave.” These are large tidal surges that result from a land shift that effects the water. The coast of Washington bears the brunt of most of the historical tsunami activity.

In 1964, an earthquake in Alaska sent a tsunami thundering down the Washington coast, with only minimal effects in the Puget Sound.

More locally, however, the greatest danger comes from a phenomena called a seiche. This is similar to a sloshing cup of coffee.

Dave Hollett, deputy director of the Island County Department of Emergency Services, said that in the 1820s, a landslide on Camano Island sent a 13-foot-high seiche across Saratoga Passage that killed numerous native Americans.

According to a Washington State Hazard Mitigation Plan, approximately 1,000 years ago, tsunamis from the Cascadia subduction zone resulted in damage to the northwestern corner of Whidbey Island.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone is a volatile fault line off the coast of Washington capable of producing earthquakes in the 9.0 range, Hollett said. The last large temblor occurred around the year 1700, and they happen approximately every 400 years. An earthquake that large off the coast of Washington would send a tsunami down the strait of Juan de Fuca, he said.

“If a large enough earthquake hits the Cascadia Subduction Zone, it would take approximately two hours to hit Whidbey Island,” Hollett said.

According to a Hazard Identity and Vulnerability Assessment, the county conducted in 2003, if a tsunami were to hit Whidbey Island, it would impact approximately a 10-square-mile area. It would also cause “heavy property damage,” with “some services temporarily disrupted for up to 24 hours in a limited area.” Numerous injuries would occur, along with two to five deaths.

For Island County, the biggest threat lies in the south end of Whidbey Island.

According to a 1996 U.S. Geological Survey report, the South Whidbey Island Fault, which roughly follows Highway 525 through South Whidbey State Park, is capable of producing an earthquake with a magnitude larger than 7.0.

The North Whidbey Island Fault enters the island around Strawberry Point and runs north east across the island. It is not considered as great of a threat.

Hollett said that if one of those faults were to rumble to life and cause a tsunami, Island County would be in trouble.

“If it happens here locally, we have no way of warning you,” he said. “We just hope we don’t lose Deception Pass (bridge) and the ferry docks will still be intact.”

Hollett said that the best way to stay safe is to head to higher ground. Also, people can get at least a few minutes’ warning of a tsunami. If, after an earthquake, the tide suddenly recedes, the sea is gathering itself for a large surge, he said.

“If the water goes away, you leave,” Hollett said.

You can reach News-Times reporter Eric Berto at eberto@whidbeynewstimes.com

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