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At the Helm: Early morning wake-up call


I usually don’t get phone calls at home at 2:15 a.m. But I did, a year ago on Friday, March 11.

It was Curry County Sheriff John Bishop calling to let me know that a possible tsunami from a Japanese earthquake was heading toward our coast. He knew the Curry Coastal Pilot could post something on our website and send out email news alerts to nearly 2,000 of our readers (which we did). 

I thanked Bishop, hung up and turned on the television news. The video of the quake and subsequent tsunami that demolished the Japanese coast was stunning. Could that happen here? Should I wake my wife and child? Should I alert my sleeping neighbors?

Bishop said the tsunami heading for Brookings could be as high as 7 feet – miniscule compared to the 30-foot waves that wiped out entire villages in Japan, but still a threat. He was waiting to hear reports from Hawaii before deciding whether to trigger the tsunami sirens countywide.

He called me back at 3:45 a.m. saying he would sound the alarm at 4 a.m., as a precaution. I woke up my wife, dressed and headed for the Pilot office. I knew then I was in for a long, exciting day – Friday is production day and it’s not uncommon for our newsroom employees to work 10 hours or more to get the next day’s paper out. I returned home that day at 10:30 p.m., 20 hours after getting the sheriff’s wake-up call.

Adrenaline of covering such a major event kept the newsroom staff going through most of the day. I’m sure it was the same for Bishop, members of local law enforcement and fire agencies, the U.S. Coast Guard, port crews and the boat owners who watched the sea toss their vessels about like toys.

We were lucky. There were no deaths along the Oregon coast, although two tourists were swept into the sea at Pistol River but quickly rescued. A man walking near the mouth of the Klamath River in Del Norte County that day was not so lucky. He was swept into the sea, his body found weeks later on a beach in Astoria.

A year later, the power of the ocean – and the destruction it brought that day – is still vivid in my mind. It’s nothing compared to the death and damage that happened in Japan, yet it makes me realize the same thing could happen here when, not if, the Cascadia Subduction Zone lurches violently, sending a tsunami directly at us.

According to the experts, such a quake, not tsunami sirens, will likely be our first and only warning. Those in low-lying areas will have 10 or 15 minutes to head for higher ground.  I live in Harbor, in the tsunami inundation zone. That’s why I keep a pair of shoes by the bed and several 72-hour go-packs filled with emergency supplies by the door and in our vehicles.

My one fear is that the Graves family will be separate from one another – at school, work and home – when disaster strikes. With cell phone service likely out and roads and bridges destroyed or damaged, how will we know if the others are safe? Where will we meet during all the chaos? 

Scary, I know. What we can do – all of us – is to be as prepared as best we can. 

I find great comfort in knowing that our so many volunteers and professionals in our community prepared to respond to the crisis. And as unnerving as it was to get a call from the sheriff at 2:15 a.m., it showed me just how dedicated and determined he is to protecting lives and property.

However, the next time a tsunami threatens our community again, I hope the sheriff’s call comes at a more reasonable hour.



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