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Los Angeles has a tsunami plan, but are Angelenos paying attention?

The Emergency Operations Center in downtown Los Angeles
The Emergency Operations Center in downtown Los Angeles
Brian Watt/KPCC

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When the giant earthquake and tsunami hit Japan three weeks ago, Angelenos in beach communities started thinking again about the chance that someday a tsunami could inundate our shores. Does Los Angeles have a plan if that happens, and are Angelenos paying attention?

Yes, Los Angeles has a plan. And on the morning of Friday, March 11th after the earthquake in Japan, none of us in the crowd that gathered in the parking lot at Venice Pier to watch for tsunami waves really followed that plan. I met folks like Joel Goodling, who rents a beachfront apartment on the ground floor just south of the pier.

"We always say, if we’re gonna die in a tsunami, we got to live at the beach," he said with a slight chuckle.

Chris Ipsen, who coordinates communication for the Los Angeles Department of Emergency Management, says ideally, Goodling and I would have stayed away from that area, dispite our curiosity.

"If people would look at the images of what we’ve seen – the destruction and capability of a tsunami wave, it’s not a joking matter."

Ipsen took me through LA’s Emergency Operations Center: a giant room with lots of TV screens, computers and desks arranged in color-coded pods where people from different agencies can monitor and manage big events. Some are planned – like the LA Marathon. Some – like wildfires - are unplanned. Ipsen said after the earthquake in Japan, staff began operating the center at a low-level.

"From here - from the West Coast - all the way out to Hawaii, there’s very sophisticated tsunami sensors - buoys that they have," said Ipsen. "All that information is channeled up to Alaska. That’s where the tsunami warning center is for the west coast."

That’s how Ipsen and his staff get word that a tsunami is coming. Then they have to pass it on to people who live where the wave could hit. After the Japan quake, Ipsen says officials issued a “Tsunami Watch” for LA coastal areas through emergency alert broadcasts and some “robo-calls.”

"It wasn’t an evacuation notice, but it was a “Don’t go near the beach” notice," Ipsen said.

But if there’s an earthquake near our own coast, a tsunami could arrive within 10 minutes. That would trigger a “Tsunami Warning,” which means people who live within blocks of the beach, the harbor area or in the Marina should head inland now.

Nancy Himmelfarb and her husband have lived in Marina Del Rey for 30 years - just a walk across the street from the boat slips. She’s a nurse, so she know about emergencies – but she says she was surprised when she started seeing blue “tsunami zone” signs near her home several years ago.

"I remember just laughing and thinking, “What the heck? We’re in a tsunami evacuation zone? Do we really need signs?” It seemed like such a remote occurrence," Himmelfarb said. "I didn’t think much of it."

But after she saw the video of the tsunami in Japan, she's been thinking about it a lot about it.

"For the next day or two, when I drove around here I could picture water being up to our two or three stories buildings - which is what most of them are here - and I thought we wouldn’t do too well."

Chris Ipsen with LA Emergency Management says if you live in the areas near the beach or harbor, and you feel the ground shake, "most likely it's gonna be a tsunami. And you should have an automatic response."

Ipsen says the Emergency Management is mailing new tsunami brochures to West LA, Venice Beach and the Harbor. Inside are the latest maps that show which areas would be inundated if a tsunami washed ashore. Emergency Management is also posting more street signs to mark those areas and evacuation routes. Now if only people would read them …