Thursday marks the five-year anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that rattled Japan and sent devastating waves around the world, including the Santa Cruz harbor. The man primarily charged with making sure the coast is prepared for the next such event says Coastsiders are ready.
In the early morning hours of March 11, 2011, many Coastsiders were told to evacuate as the surge made its way to the California shoreline. They quickly found out that the area was expecting small, manageable waves.
Nick Gottuso, Coastside district coordinator for the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services was hired on in 2013. His position was created after the 2011 event and Gottuso said he jumped at the opportunity to serve the Coastside and to address the unique needs of the isolated community. One of his first assignments was to gather together the separate volunteer groups on the Coastside and unify communication surrounding emergency preparedness.
“Get them all together on one team with some guidance and some leadership,” Gottuso said.
Gottuso brought together the amateur radio operators and Community Emergency Response Teams, those with medical training beyond basic first aid, Red Cross shelter operators and large animal evacuators. In order to become a member of the growing 125-member Coastside Emergency Corps, volunteers must be certified in one of these areas in order to assist first responders in the event of a disaster.
“They’re going to be overwhelmed with what’s happening,” Gottuso said of the first responders. “This is a way to supplement and assist.”
Gottuso says the groups will be participating in a communication drill on March 23 as part of the statewide Tsunami Preparedness Week that runs from March 20-26.
While it’s important to prepare for any disaster, Gottuso notes that it would be unlikely for a potentially devastating tsunami to hit the Coastside. The largest tsunami ever to have reached the Half Moon Bay area measured nine feet and predominately affected Pillar Point Harbor. Much of the Coastside is shielded by bluffs, and local earthquakes would be unlikely to generate a tsunami. Local faults are of the strike-slip variety, meaning a vertical fissure allows the plates to slide past one another. Japan is plagued by subduction zones. Quakes there, push one plate underneath another, a process that promotes tsunami development.
“We just don’t have the geography that lends itself to the really large tsunamis,” Gottuso said. “If we had a 10-foot tsunami it would be an astronomically large event for us.”
Gottuso said part of good preparation is knowing when to alert the public. When an earthquake happens overseas his office is notified quickly through the U.S. Geological Survey and Tsunami Warning Center data.
“We have equipment now that can measure the earthquakes,” Gottuso said. “That tells us whether or not we need to evacuate anybody.”
Gottuso said the tsunami sirens now include a voiceover PA system featuring Gottuso’s voice in English and Spanish. At 10 a.m. on the first Wednesday of every month, Gottuso says you can hear his voice over the PA system indicating that the sirens are only a test. In the event of a real tsunami event, his voice will be heard saying, “This is not a drill, this is a real tsunami,” in both English and Spanish.