Several media recently reported on a scientific study showing the threat to California of a major tsunami generated by an earthquake off Alaska. Nature reinforced the warning soon after with a strong M7.1 earthquake in Alaska. The tsunami threat to California is real. We are not prepared. The immediate economic price tag in infrastructure loss and business interruption is at least $9.5billion. The true costs are much greater. California is not alone. Most ports and coastal communities are ill-equipped to deal with the threats of extreme events from hazards and climate change.
I participated in a scientific scenario exercise to assess the potential effects on California of a hypothetical but plausible 9.1 earthquake, originating in Semidi off Alaska. The tsunami generated by the quake would reach N. California in three hours and S. California in six. Long Beach, San Diego, Southern Los Angeles and northern Orange Counties, as well as coastal communities in N. California are most affected. Nearly 92,000 people live inside the expected inundation zone, and 81,000 employees would be there if it struck on a business day; 260,000 visitors would be on coastal beaches and parks.
Based on the scenario, fierce currents would roil around the Ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach for two days, The exposure of port trade to damage and that downtime exceeds $1.2billion; business interruption would triple the figure. Along the coast, one-third of all vessels would be damaged or destroyed and over half the docks damaged or lost. The total repair costs for ports, vessels, property and critical infrastructure is estimated at $3.5 billion. Business interruption adds another $6 billion.
California’s a leader in protecting and restoring coastal habitats and endangered species, having invested millions of dollars in nature and weathered lengthy and hard-fought environmental battles. Ironically, many of the gains would be swept away in an instant, and species pushed closer to extinction. Ecosystems are not as resilient as they once were and their recovery is uncertain. Coastal areas like Malibu and Laguna are already suffering extreme beach erosion. It is not certain that sand swept away by a tsunami would return. Could these coastal areas continue to pay for re-nourishment and would it be permitted? Marshes can help to buffer the force of the waves. But in marsh areas adjacent to urban zones, e.g., Goleta or Bolinas, many will be filled with debris some of which will be hazardous.
Tsunamis trigger cascading disasters that can be more severe and long-lasting than the main event. Fires from gas or petroleum plants are common in a tsunami. Under our scenario, fires would start at many ports and marinas where petrochemicals are stored. In the Port of Los Angeles, there are 117 acres containing 182 storage tanks, with capacity for 6.4million barrels of petroleum products. We found that while fisheries would suffer few direct losses, fishermen would be unable to land or transport their catch to market and could be out of action of months. Fishermen cannot sustain those kinds of downtimes.
California’s experienced smaller tsunamis and they serve as a warning. After Tohoku Cresent City had year long delays in recovery; regulators wrangled over environmental concerns before being able to remove tsunami sediments from the port seabed. Santa Cruz also suffered delays. Local, state and federal regulations which work well in normal times become jurisdictional nightmares in a disaster.
One reason we are not prepared is that we lack the experience with mega-disasters. Another is because we can’t imagine their effects; they are always different and more far-reaching that we expect. I have experienced this personally, having survived major disasters and worked in their aftermath, For instance, in preparing for tsunamis vessel owners often equate a tsunami in a port as being similar to a big storm believing that the same safeguards will work, they don’t. Working in SE Asia after the tsunami, I encountered many surprised to find no ATM machines or ways to use their credit cards. While aware that buildings and towns had been swept away, the consequences did not sink in until they got there. We all have a naiveté about disasters, until we experience one. But we do not have to manage disaster risks based on personal experiences or perceptions.
Many dedicated professionals work hard to prepare and respond to disasters. But we face a challenge to reach the general public and special interest groups. Disaster preparedness is not emergency response, but too often we rely on it as our main tool. Disaster planning means understanding the full range of impacts, managing and reducing the recovery time which often extends into decades. Preparedness reduces the stress on emergency responders.
Here are 5 steps that we can take now to better prepare:
1. Scientists civic and business sectors cooperate on science-based scenarios to understand the direct and cascading risks. These collaboration are the only way to fully appreciate the consequences of a hazard and the needs of all sectors. Scientists working alone won’t know what is critical information to businesses or communities.
2. Communities, businesses and trade organizations self-assess to better prepare.
3. Elected officials, scientists, and managers, identify and reach out now to those whom you will need to work with during a disaster. Seeking the environmental regulator in the stress and chaos of a disasters is too late.
4. Governments, special interest groups, civic societies and communities, learn from experiences of others, educate your members and communities.
5. Elected officials and communities, identify cascading disasters, and multiple-hazards, these will play a critical role in the severity of a disaster and the potential to recover, develop resilient strategies.
If businesses adopted resilience strategies the interruption costs in our scenario would go down from $6billion to between $500-1200million. Every community and business has the power to assess its risks and to start taking action. Our job as citizens, corporations and civic societies is to take responsibility for knowing our risks and advocate for actions that help keep us and our children safe.
Five Critical Steps that Cities, Ports, and Communities can take to prepare for extreme storm, climate change, and tsunami events.
Deborah Brosnan Ph.D.