The Unsung Heroes of a Tsunami Response

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. – A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew conducts an aerial survey of the crane operations, pollution response efforts and a light sheen within the boom containment area in the Crescent City Inner Boat Basin Saturday, March 26, 2011. The Unified Command's primary operational goal is to mitigate environmental impact to the harbor, so Crescent City can begin restoring its harbor as soon as possible. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert LaFalce.

Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Robert LaFalce

There are only seconds to make a decision when an emergency knocks on your doorstep and threatens you, your community and your livelihood. Most people would like to claim that when an emergency happens they would be thinking of others instead of themselves. But how many people would actually do just that?

In the early morning hours of Friday, March 11, 2011 the residents of Crescent City Calif. woke to a tsunami warning in the wake of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated Japan, which is nearly 4,500 miles away from this sleepy little town in Northern California. Oceanographers and geologists have made the claim that because of the topography underneath the massive Pacific Ocean, the most likely city on the West Coast of the United States most likely to be hit by a tsunami would be Crescent City. Tsunamis have been observed in Crescent City 31 times since 1933 including the tsunami of 1964, which remains the largest and most destructive recorded tsunami to ever strike the U.S. Pacific Coast.

Residents of the small fishing community near the border of Oregon had approximately eight hours to get out of the way of the powerful, fast-moving wall of water. However, many didn’t hear of the incoming tsunami until it was too late, because they were blissfully sleeping in their beds or boats as the tsunami surged toward its favorite landing spot. The Japanese earthquake that caused the tsunami struck at 11:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.

The people of Crescent City, the busiest fishing port in California, were awakened by phone calls from concerned family or friends. Emergency personnel awoke others by giving evacuation orders via bullhorn and still others awoke from hearing the tsunami warning sirens. No matter how they heard about the forthcoming tsunami, most only had a short period of time to react and protect themselves, their family and their property.

Bill Barlow, vice Commander of Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 8-11, had a 27-foot sailboat moored inside the inner boat basin of Crescent City Harbor. He woke early Friday morning and placed extra mooring lines on his personal sailing vessel and hoped for a good outcome for his sailboat. Why would he not do more to save his boat? Well, there is a simple answer, and that answer was there was no more time because he spent most of the night securing the Coast Guard Auxiliary’s search and rescue boat by removing it from the water and placing it on a trailer and parking it on Whaler’s Island.

“It wasn’t a rocket science decision to make; anyone with common sense would make the same decision,” said Barlow. “It will always be the right decision, and I would make the same decision every time.”

“It was an emotional decision for him to let his sailboat ride out the tsunami, but he had already made the decision,” said Rick Postal, Flotilla 8-11 member and long-time friend of Bill.

The actions of the auxiliary in Crescent City are critical because there is only one Coast Guard unit, which calls Crescent City home, and that unit is the 87-foot Coast Guard Cutter Dorado. The Dorado serves as a patrol boat and like other multi-mission cutters with only one set of crewmen, they can’t always assist with all short-range search and rescue cases located near their homeport.

“We are only on-call for SAR within our area of responsibility – California/Oregon border south to the mouth of the Guala River – 25 percent of the year,” said Lt. j.g. Thomas Faulkenberry, commanding officer Coast Guard Cutter Dorado. “The rest of our time is spent on patrol within our AOR or even as far south as Baja, Mexico.”

In fact, the Dorado and its crew were dockside in San Pedro, Calif. en route to patrol the Baja when the tsunami hit their homeport. Instead of continuing that patrol, they raced home in just under 48 hours, through 20-foot seas to provide whatever help they could to their community.

“The crew of the Dorado has been playing an important role in this community’s recovery process,” said Barlow. “They steamed into port and went to work immediately. I was so impressed by that crew because they were so compassionate to the fisherman and that started with instruction given to them by their commanding officer Lt. Faulkenberry, ‘Remember these people have a loss … treat this experience accordingly.’”

The Coast Guard understands that the volunteer auxiliarists in Crescent City play an important role within this fishing and logging community, so the Coast Guard assigned a 25-foot Response Boat – Small to the Coast Guard Auxiliary. The auxiliarists know they are often the only available Coast Guard resource in port due to the remote location of Crescent City and the response missions of the Coast Guard. For this reason, Barlow’s decision to save the RB-S and not his own sailboat is all that more important. Luckily the RB-S was not needed, but in the future it may be there for a rescue operation because of Barlow’s selfless decision.

This was the first of many things accomplished by the Coast Guard Auxiliary, the unsung heroes of the Crescent City Tsunami Response. The auxiliarists spent more than two hundred hours responding to tsunami-related incidents.

Other selfless actions they did include allowing representatives from the Coast Guard, California Department of Fish & Game, National Response Corporation, other contractors, and local government officials from various parts of Northern California to have a dry, warm place to meet every morning. Each day, the Unified Command and various other responders were able to escape the torrential down pour of rain and wind to meet and plan operations in a safe location.

On another occasion, they went out of their way to supply a potluck dinner for the responders.

Numerous auxiliarists acted as escorts for the local community and fisherman who were trying to salvage whatever they could from their damaged vessels. Several times daily, they walked around the harbor parking lots and docks to distribute the latest fact sheets to community members looking for answers and information. This helped environmental cleanup responders perform their jobs without interruption.

“The Unified Command’s decision to place auxiliarists and the Dorado crew as escorts for these fisherman was one of the most important and impactful decisions they could have made,” said Barlow. “These people are our neighbors, and I know their boats and they know mine. We knew they were just venting their frustrations, which is important in the healing process.”

In an effort to build good working relationships, the auxiliary introduced the out-of-town agency responders to all the community leaders and decision makers, which helped make the response as fluid as possible. One auxiliarist in particular, Rick Postal, worked as a buffer between the Coast Guard’s vessel liaisons and the local boat owners. He relayed local and firsthand knowledge of boat owners and their boats to the Unified Command. Postal, is also a photographer for the local newspaper – The Daily Triplicate. If there was a message or a photo that needed to get out, Postal and his fellow volunteers were the ones that made it happen.

“The auxiliary was a tremendous force multiplier with their rapid availability, local area knowledge and ties to the community,” said Cmdr. Tom Stuhlreyer, Sector San Francisco chief of response. “They helped the Unified Command make key contacts with fishermen and community leaders that established very positive and open communications between the responders and local residents.”

“The relationships built within the community by the hard work of the local Coast Guardsmen and Coast Guard Auxiliary were instrumental in the success of the month-long operation in Crescent City,” said Stuhlreyer.

In all, the Crescent City Harbor sustained $24 million worth of damage to the port. Fifteen boats sank, 47 more were damaged and one boat ran aground near the mouth of the Elk River. The mooring docks within the Inner Boat Basin were completely destroyed.

Most of the operating fishing vessels homeported in Crescent City made it out of the harbor before the tsunami came ashore. However, these fishermen are experiencing economic hardships of their own. Unable to return to Crescent City, they have had to operate out of Eureka, Calif. and Brookings, Ore. Having been temporarily displaced has resulted in added expenses and overhead to their day-to-day business operations.

he response is considered a success because the environmental impact was minimal to both shore and marine life. California Department of Fish & Game reported no animals were affected by spilt oil. Responders removed nearly 2,000 gallons of liquid petroleum products from the sunken vessels, approximately 150 gallons of solid waste and 2,260 cubic yards of oiled debris from the Crescent City Inner Boat Basin.

Both Barlow and Postal feel like the community of Crescent was very pleased with the initial response and environmental cleanup. “The community felt great about the response and in particular the local newspaper reporters and radio personalities were impressed with the expertise and knowledge that the responders presented,” said Postal.

“We felt like this was a good training experience for the community through a real-life situation,” said Postal. “Luckily we were at low tide when the tsunami hit and that kept the damage to a small area instead of making our community live up to its reputation like the local bowling alley’s name – Tsunami Lanes.

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