Every Friday at noon, loud chimes can be heard across the Lummi Nation reservation to test a tsunami warning system.
The test chimes come from All Hazard Alert Broadcast (AHAB) towers stationed at three locations on the reservation. The AHAB towers are activated by satellite if there is a large earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone and can be activated locally to warn of other natural and manmade hazards, including oil spills and floods. In an actual emergency, residents would hear a loud siren.
The Lummi Nation Multi-Hazard Mitigation Team installed two of the three AHAB towers in 2007 with a grant from the state Emergency Management Division. The third tower was installed in 2006 by the state and ConocoPhillips, coordinated by Whatcom County and Fire District No. 17.
Lummi has worked with state and county emergency management divisions since 2005 to plan evacuation route maps, install tsunami warning and evacuation signs, and develop an informational brochure.
The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan have renewed concerns that the Pacific Northwest is due for a large earthquake-generated tsunami. Historically, damaging tsunamis have struck the Pacific Northwest coast following earthquakes on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, as well as local earthquakes.
The last known local earthquake to cause a tsunami on the Pacific Coast was in 1700. It is believed that “The Thunderbird and the Whale,” a story passed down through the tribal oral tradition, speaks of that tsunami. A battle between the thunderbird and the killer whale that takes place in the sea causes waters to rise, destroying canoes and taking lives.
A large earthquake off the coast of Washington could generate a tsunami that reaches the shore in a few hours. Pacific coastal areas and inland waters on the Strait of Juan de Fuca are most vulnerable. The people most at risk are those on beaches, at low-lying areas of coastal towns and cities, near tidal flats or near mouths of rivers draining into the ocean.