San Mateo County tsunami response under review 

Hours before watching his wrestlers compete in Kearney, Neb., on Friday, San Francisco State University’s wrestling coach received an unexpected phone call: an automated tsunami warning.

Lars Jensen, an El Granada resident, was far from danger, but his wife was one of many Coastside residents who chose to flee after receiving the warning and learning that state Highway 1 would close at 8 a.m.

“My wife barely got out to get to work,” Jensen said.

Jensen and other coastal residents were called through San Mateo County’s automated “reverse 911” alert system to notify them about the giant wave charging toward California in the wake of a 9.0-magnitude earthquake that rocked Japan just hours before.

Residents in Pacifica, Half Moon Bay and other threatened coastal communities were told evacuation was voluntary. But many people, likely fearing the worst, headed east up state Highway 92 toward Skyline Boulevard, creating congestion on the roadway. Many drivers ended up simply parking on the side of the road and abandoning their vehicles.

That traffic backup, and others on major Peninsula roadways, has prompted a review of county and city disaster plans.

Roughly half of Half Moon Bay’s 1,800 to 2,000 residents in vulnerable areas decided to head for higher ground, interim police Chief Lee Violett said.

Though residents’ intentions were sound, “it did create some problems,” Violett said. If the city had needed to issue a mandatory full-scale evacuation, that would have created a “terrible bottleneck” on Highway 92, he said.

Despite the traffic jam, county officials managed to send relief services up to highways 92 and 35. The Office of Emergency Control provided residents on the ridge with water and information, and encouraged them to go to tsunami shelters in Half Moon Bay, said Bill O’Callahan, the head of the county Office of Emergency Services.

In the next few weeks, O’Callahan said he wants to meet with officials from Pacifica and Half Moon Bay to discuss ways to improve disaster planning and response.

“That was a good lesson learned for us,” he said.

Despite traffic complications, authorities were aware of the potential risks posed by the wave early Friday.

The Pacifica Police Department began preparing for the worst after receiving the tsunami warning around midnight, police Capt. Fernando Realyvasquez said. He and other staffers spent hours monitoring information from the Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, knowing such planning efforts can be time-consuming.

“[There are] so many issues that can come up,” Realyvasquez said.

As part of the city’s response plan, all schools in Pacifica were closed, with Oceana and Terra Nova high schools serving as shelters for evacuees. Half Moon Bay High School also was closed and used as a shelter. Shelters were managed by the American Red Cross.

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