updated 7/18/2005 11:19:21 AM ET 2005-07-18T15:19:21

The tiny wave generated by a major undersea earthquake off the far Northern California coast last month revealed large gaps in how ready communities hugging the Pacific shoreline are for a true tsunami threat.

Although the alert was canceled about an hour after blaring sirens warned some towns of a could-be killer wave that never arrived, the effects of the magnitude-7.2 quake are still rattling emergency planners.

Some residents received no warning on the evening of June 14 — in other cases, word was not spread wide enough fast enough. And the event exposed how some heavily populated areas lack an evacuation plan even if they did receive quick warning.

While catastrophic tsunamis rarely strike the West Coast, waves could reach land within 20 minutes and the potential for damage and loss of life has increased with the rising tide of coastal development.

The latest offshore quake has jolted emergency officials into action.

Washington state will install more warning sirens along its coast. Oregon plans to renew its tsunami danger education efforts.

California will upgrade its automated calling system that alerts local emergency planners. On Tuesday, officials from California’s 15 coastal counties will meet in San Francisco to pinpoint what went wrong last month and how better to deal with the next wave.

State officials also meet regularly with local emergency workers to discuss preparedness and the June 14 dry run.

“I wouldn’t say this was a failure,” Steve Sellers of the state Office of Emergency Services recently told about 50 emergency personnel in the seaside city of Ventura. “But we need to do some fine-tuning.”

Fresh concerns first followed last year’s mammoth undersea earthquake that generated killer waves across Southeast Asia. Earlier this year, the U.S. unveiled a $37.5 million plan to create a tsunami warning system to protect the Pacific and Atlantic coasts by mid-2007.

A deadly reminder
Last month’s quake was a reminder of the West coast’s own deadly history.

Scientists studying faults under the Pacific have found evidence that major quakes capable of generating tsunamis recur about every 200 years. Since 1812, California has been hit by 14 tsunamis that produced waves 3 feet or higher. Six of those caused significant damage.

But while a tsunami threat is real, the waves are far less common than earthquakes, wildfires, landslides and floods — so preparedness doesn’t attract much funding.

Few California counties have a tsunami preparedness budget and only Crescent City and the University of California at Santa Barbara have evacuation plans for residents, according to state officials. California receives about $274,000 a year in federal funding for tsunami planning and spends most of that mapping areas most exposed to 30-foot waves.

The state has since retrained its staff and plans to spend $300,000 to expand a warning system that would automatically contact cell phones and pagers of as many as 2,000 local emergency planners.

Washington state has decided to double the number of sirens along its nearly 160 miles of coastline this summer. Currently, there are only six sirens. Oregon plans to distribute tsunami danger pamphlets and brochures.

According to a report by California’s Office of Emergency Services, state officials warned counties within seven minutes of receiving the tsunami alert from the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center. While most 911 centers received the warning, some San Francisco Bay area emergency planners were caught unaware and the warning expired before the state could contact them individually.

“This was a good test,” said Eric Boldt, a warning coordination meteorologist at NOAA. “There was no tsunami, but we all found out there were problems.”

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