In Our View: The Uncertain Storm Nears

As mystery of tsunami debris unfolds, officials must stay flexible in preparing

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When it comes to West Coast states' preparations for the arrival of tsunami debris, the key to success will be flexibility.Gov. Chris Gregoire faces a curious blend of certainty and mystery. Scientists know debris from the March 11, 2011, tsunami in Japan is heading this way. But no one knows how much will travel 5,000 miles to our beaches, or whether it will arrive in a steady stream or in bursts dictated by storms. As Gregoire has said, "I can't declare an emergency until I actually have one on my hands."

How does any politician or emergency response official prepare for a disaster under those conditions? By remaining flexible. And that's the strategy the governor has put forth. She is to be commended for pronounced adaptability shown most recently at Monday's press conference in Ocean Shores. Her "Clean Shoreline Initiative" is led by the state's top emergency official, Maj. Gen. Timothy Lowenberg, director of the state's Emergency Management Division, in conjunction with state departments of Health, Ecology, Fish and Wildlife, Parks, Natural Resources and other agencies as needed.

Long before Monday's press conference, the state has been preparing for tsunami debris. In February, Gregoire signed an agreement with British Columbia Premier Christy Clark outlining response strategies. In March, she met with governors of Oregon and California and the premier of B.C. to enhance the collaborative effort. Also, five scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are conducting a 10-day survey of beaches in southeast Alaska. They're due back in Juneau on Sunday.

Also, Gregoire pointed out, the Department of Ecology has been approved to use $100,000 from its litter cleanup account for tsunami debris removal. Ultimately, depending on the amount and pace of arrival of debris, Gregoire likely will call for federal funds. The rubble is expected to arrive over several years, but if a major storm causes a surge of beach debris, she said, "that will require far more financial resources than our state has available. I'm confident our federal partners will recognize the need to ensure our beaches, our shellfish, and the livelihoods of those living on the coast are safe and protected."

Shrouded in uncertainty are two primary concerns: radiation and invasive species. In the case of the former, no radiation has been detected in debris so far, and some scientists point to the fact that the debris had washed beyond the shores in Japan when most of the damage at the Fukushima nuclear plant occurred. Still, they're not sure about contamination. Regarding invasive species, the West Coast's fishing industry is at great risk of being damaged if debris brings in unwanted organisms.

Here are a few statistics to illustrate the potential magnitude of the problem: Japanese scientists estimate 1.5 million tons of material is floating in the ocean after the catastrophe. The tsunami-related dock that washed ashore on Agate Beach in Oregon is 66 feet long, weighs 165 tons and carries 13 pounds of organisms per square foot. Anecdotally, kayakers searching remote beaches near the tip of the Olympic Peninsula have found part of a house (later confirmed to be tsunami-related), plus parts of a washing machine, a laundry hamper and a child's toilet bowl.

We don't think government leaders are over-preparing for this potential disaster. Even if that proves to be the case years from now, fine. Because for now, no one is sure how fast the tsunami debris will arrive, how much of it will get here, and how long the problem will last.