Tsunami Ready: UCSB’s Emergency Manager Reviews Tonga Tsunami

Photo by Sammy Muñoz

Alexis Crisostomo

Co-News Editor

On Jan. 15, the National Weather Service warned California residents of a tsunami that would strike West Coast shores. Residents of Santa Barbara were included in this message, warned to remain on higher ground and away from beach shores. The Bottom Line (TBL) sat down with James Caesar, UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) Emergency Manager, to review the impact of the winter tsunami and how the university prepares for such natural disasters. 

The eruption of an underwater volcano near Tonga in the Pacific triggered the tsunami last weekend. Beaches along the West Coast closed due to, “strong currents hazardous to swimmers, boats, and coastal structures,” with waves destroying property and flooding places like Santa Cruz Harbor

In a past interview with TBL, Caesar remarked how a tsunami impacting the UCSB community could potentially flood into the beach and lagoon. Regarding the events this January, he adds that a tsunami could also impact Highway 217 and Freeway 101 near the Santa Barbara and Ventura County line. 

He explained that the “advisory level” tsunami was expected to tidal surge 2-3 feet. According to Caesar, UCSB has been deemed “Tsunami Ready” by the National Weather Service since 2004.

With this knowledge, the university takes part in a voluntary community recognition program that “promotes tsunami hazard preparedness as an active collaboration among [different levels of] emergency management agencies, community leaders, and the public,” stated Caesar. 

As of now, UCSB is the only university in the United States that has the “Tsunami Ready” certification.

The main goal of this program is to improve public safety regarding tsunami emergencies. UCSB’s Office of Emergency Management and Mission Continuity prepares for these natural disasters by reviewing a number of evacuation procedures in their emergency planning exercises. 

While the university does not expect a tsunami to surge high enough to instigate a campus-wide evacuation or shelter in place, it does warn of the potential impact on Highway 217 because of its low elevation. 

As a result, Caesar explained, the management office is also prepared to close roads and move people off campus safely if needed. In the past, this has also involved testing a system that would open the bus gate on Sabado Tarde to let potentially stranded community members evacuate if Highway 217 floods. The university also works with Santa Barbara county to monitor erosion concerns and how that may affect the impact of tsunamis in the future.

The tsunami waves from Jan. 15 peaked at about 1.9 and 2.3 feet in Santa Barbara County. While the tsunami was caused by a volcanic eruption and not by an earthquake, an occurrence that the preparedness office would often reference, the event did not require the use of evacuation or road closures. 

“We were monitoring the impacted campus areas and nothing was expected that would be beyond a normal high tide event,” Caesar remarked. “We were monitoring the tsunami with state and local officials; if the situation changed we were ready to respond accordingly.”

While “Tsunami Ready,” UCSB continues to prepare for tidal emergencies. Caesar explained that community members can help by learning about local hazards and understanding the risks around them. He explained that UCSB’s Office of Emergency Management and Mission Continuity used to offer three-day Community Emergency Response Team training for the community, and would most likely offer them again when the COVID-19 pandemic closes to an end. 

Until then, the office continues to offer one-hour emergency preparedness workshops that cover all local hazards, from tsunamis to earthquakes.