It was reassuring. But there was no guarantee that they would be able to get there in real earthquake conditions – escaping collapsed buildings, gathering scattered personnel around various facilities, traversing chaotic, sinking ground and churning water. “It will take us 20 minutes to start moving,” says Ivan Carlson, president of the pilots’ association, “unless there is a major disruption. This leaves almost no time to stop at the Coast Guard station docks on the way back; what will they do with the wounded who can’t get to the pier? Will they have a place for tourists and buyers at the base exchange?
Practice makes better. Pilots and the Coast Guard conducted their last evacuation exercise in 2018, practicing escaping into deep water and ferrying passengers across the harbor to Port Angeles, where they will have to hike about half a mile uphill. “Everything went perfectly,” says von Brandenfels, “because we planned it.” Then the pandemic hit and the drills and planning stopped.
The Coast Guard’s rotation policy further complicates planning and communication, pilots say. Personnel and officers are regularly promoted and transferred to new positions around the country every two to four years, two for commanders. The Port Angeles station had almost as many commanders in 88 years as there were presidents in the United States in 224 years. Cutty, who led tsunami preparations at the Port Angeles station, continued to fight hurricanes as assistant commander of the Coast Guard’s New Orleans operation after a stint in Jacksonville.
The Coast Guard considers this rotation necessary for interoperability, a model developed in the early 2000s and first tested during Hurricane Katrina, which brought in resources from across the country. With interoperability, “commanders can request resources from across the Coast Guard,” says the lieutenant. Steven T. Nolan, Communications Officer, Coast Guard District 13, Four Northwest Regional Command. “That’s the beauty of the standardization model.” Under that, “you don’t get pockets of operational culture,” Petty Officer Clark explains. “So that everyone can work with everyone.”
But frequent rotations make it difficult to build institutional memory and maintain focus on a unique local issue, such as a tsunami. “Size really exacerbates the transfer schedule,” Cutty said. “If 40 percent of the 1,500 people in a large base transfer, you still have a lot of continuity. But the Coast Guard is so small” – and Port Angeles is a small base within it – that the transfers have a much bigger effect. “It’s really hard for them to follow the plan,” sighs von Brandenfels. “We’ll bring in a new commander, at least make a reasonable communications schedule” and he or she will disappear.
Commander Joan Snaith, who served as commander in Port Angeles until last summer, was unable to obtain information about the effects of the tsunami and the prospects for evacuation from Ian Miller or another expert; she arrived in June 2020, at the height of the pandemic. It is therefore not surprising that when I contacted her, she expressed a relatively optimistic view of the information and evacuation options that would be available during the 45-plus minutes between the earthquake and the arrival of the tsunami. “The size of the wave will determine how we need to respond,” Snite told me in March 2022. “If we can get people safely overland, we will.”
Going down to earth might be a reasonable answer for a more common type of wave generated by a distant earthquake or volcanic eruption, most likely in Alaska. (The January 15, 2022, eruption in Tonga triggered a tsunami warning, but only minor waves along the coast of Washington.) There will be several hours off the coast and others at Ediz Hook to prepare and evacuate.
This is not the case for the much larger tsunami generated by the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, which arrives an hour or less after the shaking begins. “Any official tsunami warning bulletins that come out before the arrival of the wave will most likely not be based on an actual event because they will not have time to calculate the actual time or amplitude of the arrival of the wave,” said Corina Allen, chief geologist for dangers of the State Geological Service. explained by email.
And no one knows exactly how big the tsunami waves will be until they land; several variables, including bathymetry, tides, and the location and nature of an earthquake, affect wave height. However, “a local tsunami warning will be ground shaking,” says Maximilian Dickson, who runs the Earthquake Control Program at the state’s Division of Emergency Management. How long this shaking will last will give some idea of the strength of the quake, but it’s hardly an accurate indication of a tsunami to follow.