Planes Equip to Warn Oregon Coast of Future Tsunamis

March 4, 2008

Oregon Civil Air Patrol planes equipped with loudspeakers will help warn coastal residents if a tsunami heads their way.

On a recent test run, pilot Scott Bakker used a tiny MP3 player hooked to a powerful speaker aboard a Cessna 337 Skymaster to see how far a warning message could be heard. It wasn’t long before Bakker got a response.

“I could hear everything you said,” Curry County sheriff’s Capt. Dennis Dinsmore said over the radio from his office.

The loudspeaker can be heard from up to 3 miles away at 1,000 or more feet above ground.

Within 20 minutes, Bakker says, he or one of the other handful of pilots trained to fly the Skymaster or its speaker-equipped counterpart, a Cessna 182 Skylane, can be airborne en route to a half-dozen population centers from Coos Bay to Eureka, Calif.

The warning goes like this: “Attention, attention. This is an official warning. A tsunami is imminent. Go to high ground.”

Bakker and the other pilots with the U.S. Air Force auxiliary unit, the Civil Air Patrol, are supplied with pagers from the Curry County sheriff’s office, linked to the county’s tsunami warning system.

When the pagers go off, the pilots head to the airport. In rural areas such as the south coast, where Curry County’s 15 operational stationary sirens are sporadic and people might not be listening to their radios or watching television, Bakker’s planes may be the first to warn thousands of people.

“It’s going to help us immensely,” said Mike Brace, emergency coordinator for the Curry County Emergency Services Department.

“As far as we know, it’s one of a kind on the coast. Its a great leg in the stool, with the airplane, tsunami sirens and radio stations, to get as many venues as we can to get the alert out to people,” Brace said.

The idea came about after a phone call in December 2006 from Spencer Kim, who was desperately looking for his son James, stranded in the Rogue River wilderness in December 2006 with his wife and their two daughters.

James Kim died of hypothermia after hiking away from his family to look for help. By the time Spencer Kim hired a private helicopter and another volunteer searcher spotted the rest of the his family, his son was dead, if only for a few hours.

The elder Kim had wanted Bakker’s help, as commander of the local Civil Air Patrol. But there was nothing Bakker could do.

“The Air Force told us to stand down,” Bakker said.

Bakker wonders whether things might have been different if hed been free to use the Civil Air Patrol’s planes without a request from authorities. So he formed a nonprofit group, the Guardians from Above, that operates with its own budget and can act independently of an official order.

The last time anyone died in Oregon and Northern California from a tsunami was in 1964, when the Good Friday earthquake in Alaska created a tsunami that killed 12 people in Crescent City, Calif., and four on the Oregon Coast.

Source: The Register-Guard,

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