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Tsunami: What is the risk to Sonoma County?

  • Linda and Michael Stafford in their sunroom near the water in Bodega Bay. March 18, 2011.

The phone call came at 6:30 a.m., one of hundreds of automated emergency calls to coastal Sonoma County residents just hours after the devastating earthquake in Japan: There's a tsanami warning and you should evacuate.

"I went down to make sure my sailboat was tied up, we collected some important papers and went up to Salmon Creek to watch," said Michael Stafford, who lives on Bayflat Road in Bodega Bay. "I think both me and my wife consider it a wake-up call."

The images from Japan are devastating, with thousands dead and towns wiped out. In Bodega Bay the wave launched from the magnitude 9.0 quake was noticeable, draining Bodega Bay and then filling it quickly.

But it did not come close to any of the homes along the flats of the broad bay, which was at low tide and is also protected by a jetty and Doran Beach.

So just what is the risk to the Sonoma County coast?

"The only flat land areas are Doran Beach, Bodega Bay, the entrance to Salmon Creek and Jenner. ..in those areas there is some exposure," said Christopher Helmgren, assistant county Office of Emergency Services coordinator. "In the worst case, 700 homes."

Even in a worst-case scenario, the topography of the Sonoma County coast means there is little risk to widespread damage from a tsunami.

"This is a safe harbor, the best on the West Coast," said Steve Anello, a fisherman whose home also is on the bay flatlands.

"But if it had been high tide, the water may have come across the road," he said of the March 11 wave.

Seismologists say it would take a major quake greater than 8.5 in Alaska or Chile or in what is called the Cascadia subduction zone off the coast near Eureka to produce a large tsunami for California.


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