Editorial: Tsunami danger raised early

Some people chuckled years ago when T.J. Harmon, former Emergency Services director for Island County, had tsunami warning signs posted around the Whidbey Island’s low-lying areas.

But now, after seeing the destruction wrought by the the tsunami in Asia last week, nobody is laughing. Harmon’s warning system may have been low-tech, but it effectively brought the danger of a tsunami to the public’s attention.

The blue and white signs were a quick hit with teenagers, some of whom liberated the signs from their post holes and turned them into bedroom wall artwork. The problem grew so bad that Harmon had cheaper versions of the signs printed up to hand out to teens and others in need of tsunami education or bedroom decorations.

A few of the original signs survive and still point the way to high ground for people visiting Whidbey Island’s low-lying areas. The chances of a tsunami and a tourist reaching West Beach, for example, at the same time are extremely remote, but if it does happen the tourist needs to know which way to turn.

Since those signs were posted, tsunami warning has become more high-tech in the Northwest. Today, scientific buoys in the ocean are ready to detect a tsunami after an earthquake and alert the authorities who in turn would contact emergency services agencies and the media. In this age of instantaneous communication, a tsunami warning would take only seconds or minutes to become public knowledge.

People living along Whidbey Island’s west side or enjoying the scenery there, might learn of an approaching tsunami by a text message, over a car radio, a Walkman, or from volunteer firefighters helping to evacuate the area.

However the message is received, there is no doubt the warning would come quickly, which did not happen last week when the tsunami that hit southeast Asia was preceded by no warning at all. Even five or 10 minutes’ notice could have saved thousands of lives.

It’s comforting to know we already have an effective tsunami warning system in place. And if one ever approaches, just look around and run for high ground — there’s no time to look for one of Harmon’s signs, which most likely is in some kid’s bedroom.

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