Environment & Science

New 'Tsunami Playbooks' to help counties avoid disaster

A lifeguard patrols Seal Beach, which was closed by authorities as a precaution against a possible tsunami following the massive March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
A lifeguard patrols Seal Beach, which was closed by authorities as a precaution against a possible tsunami following the massive March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
David McNew/Getty Images

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State officials are drafting new guidelines for dealing with the threat of tsunamis.

They’re called "Tsunami-Response Playbooks" and there will be a different one for each coastal county, tailored to its environment.

The project began after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami combo in Japan that sent damaging waves all the way to California, where they caused an estimated $50-$100 million in damage, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The waves varied in size depending on the coast and harbor. In some locations water rose only about 2 feet, while in other places tides swelled to 8 feet above normal.

Rick Wilson of the California Geological Survey says this created confusion about whether to call for evacuations.

"So what came out of this event was a request by emergency managers and harbor officials to develop products that can help them plan for tsunamis of different sizes," he said Friday.

Cue the new playbooks.

One big difference between these new manuals and the old guidelines is that now, emergency managers will have information about when and how to order partial evacuations.

Previously, they could only let people stay in place or fully evacuate a region.

Now, during smaller events, managers will be able to evacuate just certain areas, depending on the projected strength of the tsunami.

John Higgins with the Ventura Port District said the playbook for his region also has detailed maps of harbors, showing where waves will likely be the worst.

"So if we are moving boats, potentially we can take boats from the worse spots and move them to safe spots," Higgins noted.

The playbooks also challenge the long held assumption that boaters should go out to sea when a tsunami is expected. The guides say they should dock their ships, so they don’t get stranded far from shore waiting for dangerous currents to die down.

The California Geological Survey and the California Office of Emergency Services are working on playbooks for San Diego, Orange, Ventura, Monterey and Humboldt Counties. They should be ready by late summer.

Guides for Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco,  Alameda and Del Norte Counties should be ready in 2016, officials said, adding that they hope to eventually have a playbook for every coast county in California.