Four of Curry County’s tsunami sirens – including two in the south end of the county – aren’t working, but residents in those areas need only despair if a local earthquake and tsunami strike.
The sirens stationed along Oregon’s shoreline are only there to notify people of tsunamis triggered from distant earthquakes – and giving them four to six hours to flee, if needed.
“These sirens are not for the big earthquake,” said Don Kendall, the emergency services coordinator for Curry County. “If the siren goes off, turn on the radio and listen to instructions. Find out what you need to do.”
If a 9.0 magnitude earthquake strikes along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, just off the Oregon and Washington coasts, people will have less than 10 minutes to stand up after the shaking stops and run to higher ground – preferably an elevation of 120 feet or higher – before a wave hits.
“The power will go down as soon as you’re able to stand up,” Kendall said, adding that the tsunami sirens are run off electricity.
He said most people heard about last year’s tsunami while watching the news or from faraway friends who notified them on email or the Internet – a few hours before the local sirens were triggered at sea.
“The (local) 911 lines all lit up before the sirens went off,” Kendall said. “People wanted to know if they should go to Medford. People saw a flash on the news or heard it from friends.”
Edda Franzen, who lives on the ocean side of Highway 101 near the Winchuck River, said she heard the siren last year when the Japanese tsunami was on its way.
“Within two minutes, our phone rang, and friends of our who live higher up called to say, ‘Come on up! Your room is ready.’” she said.
She has noticed the absence of siren testing at Crissey Field, and it has her concerned.
“A lot of people live in this area,” she said. “We can’t hear the Benham Road or port sirens. “For most people, this (Crissey) is the only warning system there is. There’s a bed-and-breakfast next to us; I’m sure they’re concerned as well.”
More and more, Kendall said, people are using phones with applications that can alert them to danger. Tillamook County is even considering eliminating its sirens in favor of social media devices.
Locally, people with phones that have as little technological capability as texting can sign onto Nixle, enter their cell phone data and will be notified in the case of an emergency. And a new program can target specific cell-site areas.
“People who are in the area – even if they’re roaming, even if they have a European phone – will receive the message,” Kendall said. “The only criteria is that the phone (have the capability to) receive text.”
Kendall is in charge of maintaining the 17 sirens in Curry County, including near the Gray Whales building, fire station and fairgrounds in Gold Beach; the fire station in Pistol River; and those at the Brookings and Harbor fire departments, the Port of Brookings Harbor, Harris Beach Rest Area and Crissey Field State Park near the Winchuck River.
Sirens are tested at 11 a.m. the first Wednesday of every month.
The sirens at the Port of Brookings Harbor and at Crissey Field State Park are currently inoperable.
The sirens break down periodically because they are old, made in the World War II or Korean War eras and retired from nuclear power plants, Kendall said. Marine layers contribute to rust in the mechanical machines.
“We pulled one box open, and inside was a computer chip that looked like a basketball in there,” Kendall said. “It was a big, orange ball of rust.”
Other problems to which the sirens are subject include shorts caused by moisture, cards that don’t always receive signals and programming that gets scrambled.
He ordered a replacement for the siren at the port and now must rebuild it. Locating parts becomes increasingly difficult over the years, as does finding someone who knows how to repair the units. The electrician he has used for the past two years has retired. Maintenance and repair averaged $2,000 a month last year.
The replacement siren cost $2,400. But a new, modern siren, carries a $40,000 price tag – a cost the county can ill afford to bear. “We utilized what we could get at the time,” Kendall said, adding that the sustained wail they emit is hard on motors. “New ones have no moving parts.”
The Crissey Field siren has been acting up periodically for the past year. That is next on the repair list – hopefully before the end of winter. The last motor he had went to the north end of the county, and repairs to the remaining ones will be done as he has time and money.
The work will be delayed because Kendall has also been charged with reprogramming the county’s emergency service radios – 418 of them – and a deadline looms.
Yet, these old sirens still serve their purpose and are adequate for the area, Kendall said.
“I think the only places we need them is on beach,” he said. “But the parks and rec people, the police, they all go to the beach and tell people to get off the beach: Tsunami.”
“I’m kind of prepared to go out to sea with the house,” Franzen joked. “But I shouldn’t have to.”