Coast Guard not prepared for tsunamis, says GAO

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A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicates that the US Coast Guard is not sufficiently prepared to deal with tsunamis.

The Pacific Northwest is home to seismic hazards, including the Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ). This is a large fault located 50 to 100 miles offshore, known to produce large earthquakes and tsunamis that may require the evacuation of Coast Guard personnel and dependents during disasters. a major event.

The GAO review found, however, that only 19 of the 39 at-risk Coast Guard units in this region have a written tsunami evacuation plan for personnel and their dependents. Plans varied widely and many of those who had plans did not exercise them.

The CSZ is approximately 800 miles long and is located 50 to 80 miles off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, Northern California; and British Columbia, Canada. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), these subduction zones produce some of the largest earthquakes in the world, which can exceed magnitude 9.0, generate large tsunamis, and produce aftershocks for months afterwards. According to FEMA, a complete rupture of the CSZ fault can generate ground shaking for up to five minutes and a first tsunami wave of three to 80 feet reaching the outer coast of Washington and Oregon in 10 to 30 minutes. Estimates of tsunami arrival along Washington’s interior coast could exceed an hour after the rupture. According to the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, scientists estimate there is a 37% chance that a CSZ event of magnitude 7.1 or greater will occur in the Pacific Northwest within the next fifty years. years.

Seismic activity is difficult to predict and the CSZ fault could generate a major earthquake and tsunami without warning that would affect the lives, property, infrastructure and environment of millions of people for years. FEMA planning documents indicate that approximately 86,000 people in the Pacific Northwest live within the CSZ tsunami flood zone. A complete rupture of the CSZ fault could injure more than 107,000 people, result in nearly 14,000 deaths, and severely damage approximately 620,000 buildings, 2,000 schools, 100 hospitals, and all seaports on the Pacific Northwest Coast.

The GAO is understandably concerned about the lack of Coast Guard evacuation plans, given the potential scale of such a disaster in the Pacific Northwest (District 13). The watchdog found not only a lack of evacuation plans, but a lack of leadership on the issue, noting that “the Coast Guard does not ensure that units in this seismically active region of the United States create evacuation plans. ‘Tsunami Evacuation’. Instead, the leadership of each unit determines whether to develop a plan.

Of the 19 plans that existed at the time of the GAO’s review, the watchdog found many variations, mostly due to a lack of guidance. For example, seven plans direct personnel to evacuate upon detection of major seismic activity, while the other 12 direct personnel to wait for an official tsunami warning before initiating evacuation procedures. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials responsible for operating the national tsunami warning system told the GAO that evacuation procedures should begin as soon as a major earthquake is detected. Specifically, NOAA officials explained that damage to communications infrastructure from the initial earthquake may prevent units from receiving an official warning and that any delays in evacuating the tsunami flood zone may lead to loss of life.

While the Coast Guard provides units with contingency planning templates that include explicit emergency evacuation procedures for various natural hazards, including earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires, it does not did not do for tsunamis.

Leaders of units visited by GAO who had written tsunami evacuation plans were unaware of the feasibility of their plans because they had not exercised them due, in part, to the impact of COVID-19 on in-person gatherings. The GAO report states that “Coast Guard officials were unaware of past attempts to exercise their unit’s plan or the frequency, results, and lessons learned from exercises.”

While the GAO report exposes gaps in Coast Guard tsunami evacuation planning, it acknowledges the work already undertaken by the agency and commends its work on tsunami preparedness, including contingency plans, purchases of emergency communications equipment and participation in emergency response exercises. Among the key actions the Coast Guard has taken is District 13’s development of the All-Hazards Plan, which includes protocols to respond to a variety of natural hazards, including a CSZ event. Additionally, following the Coast Guard’s participation in Cascadia Rising 2016, a national-level exercise, involving federal, state, and local emergency management officials, it developed and submitted after-action reports documenting lessons learned. learned, best practices and recommendations for improvement.

To address the shortcomings discovered during its review, the GAO made three recommendations to the Coast Guard Commander:

  • Ensure Pacific Northwest coastal units develop location-specific evacuation plans.
  • Ensure coastal units in the Pacific Northwest are provided with tsunami evacuation planning guidelines that include protocols for personnel and dependents.
  • Ensure that Coastal Units in the Pacific Northwest assess the feasibility of their tsunami evacuation plans through regular drills that provide opportunities for participation by Coast Guard personnel and dependents .

The Department of Homeland Security agreed. However, the GAO is concerned about the timeliness of the Coast Guard’s response to the recommendations. The agency does not expect to develop written tsunami evacuation plans and provide guidance to units for developing plans until December 31, 2025. Nor does it anticipate units will exercise their plans. before December 31, 2026.

Read the full report on GAO


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