Rushing to answer pleas from Pacific

In World News

By Matt O’Brien

Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.


Oct. 2–OAKLAND — The man responsible for directing America’s disaster operations along the West Coast and the ocean beyond was riding BART on Tuesday from the Oakland airport, fresh from a meeting of fire chiefs in Riverside, when a bulletin came up on his cell phone screen.

“Major Earthquake American Samoa 7.9,” the subject line declared. “(Samoan officials) called to report a major earthquake felt on the Island. “… No initial reports of damage.”

As Justin Dombrowski processed the news — that first message, then another and another — coming from one of nation’s most far-flung territories, he knew his day was about to get a whole lot busier.

“This was a no-notice event,” said the veteran of both Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, who was soon rushing into the Oakland headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after his BART train arrived downtown. “We are stuck behind the power curve.”

Wayne Cawthorn, the seasoned dispatcher who wrote the message, was sitting alone where he always does — a windowless room filled with TV screens on the 11th floor of an Oakland high-rise. The first time his Samoan colleague called him about the earthquake, he said, “She was actually relatively calm.”

Soon after the call, an e-mail arrived from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, saying “it is not known that a tsunami was generated” but the risk was very high. If a tsunami wave did hit, its first stop would be American

Samoa, followed by the neighboring independent nation of Samoa. And, when would it hit?

The tsunami warning predicted 6:59 a.m. local time for Pago Pago, American Samoa’s capital and the location of the emergency dispatcher who had called him moments earlier. That meant 10:59 a.m. in Oakland, already 10 minutes ago.

“And then the second time she called, she was actually worried,” Cawthorn said. “The tsunami had struck, and they were leaving for higher ground.”

Those were the first few minutes of the biggest operation since the 2007 California fire season for Oakland’s FEMA branch, an office tasked with responding to disasters in a region stretching thousands of miles from Arizona to the Northern Mariana Islands.

Learning lessons after receiving severe criticism for its Katrina response, the agency last year added an around-the-clock watch center to the office. Cawthorn, a former Coast Guard dispatcher in Alameda, is one of its staff. Previously, the closest 24-hour center was near Seattle.

“It was a lights-on, lights-off thing until we opened the watch center,” said Nancy Ward, the agency’s regional administrator. “Now, the lights are on all the time.”

No stateside watch center, FEMA officials said, could prevent the disaster that thrashed American Samoa that morning. The earthquake, later determined to be magnitude 8.0, hit at 6:48 a.m. local time.

“That’s an 11-minute difference,” between the earthquake and tsunami warning, said Robert Clyburn, who works with Cawthorn at the watch center. “You just can’t get a warning out that quickly.”

By the time Dombrowski arrived from BART, an adrenaline-filled crew was filling up the empty computers in a situation room across the hall from Cawthorn’s office.

By 1 p.m., the news was getting worse.

“Two reported fatalities, unconfirmed, including a heart attack,” another bulletin sent from the Oakland center reported. “Widespread damage in low-lying areas, including coastal roads to outlying villages. Buildings with water damage. Report of a water main failure on Pago Pago, main village. Power is out island wide.”

In the next hours, representatives arrived to the Broadway tower from the Coast Guard, the Army and the federal departments of Energy, Agriculture and Health and Human Services.

They began chartering planes with experts and provisions. Before dawn Wednesday, a plane departed Oakland International Airport. Another left from Sacramento and a team of medics left from Oregon.

On Wednesday night, Kenneth Tingman, the head of FEMA’s operation on the island, was on the ground and briefing the Oakland crew by phone. One of his main messages was that the Samoans, above all, did not want to be stuck in shelters. The close-knit community of islanders wanted to prop up tents next to their homes so they could begin rebuilding, he told the Oakland team, according to Dombrowski.

“We finally have some people on the ground in American Samoa,” Dombrowski said Thursday morning. “That’s helping us getting a little bit better understanding of priorities.”

Anthony Lucas, an official with the Department of Energy in Washington, arrived at the Oakland office hours after the quake. His task: get a flooded power plant — one of two on the island — back in operation. By Thursday, he said, they were still looking at 20 to 30 days before it would be working again.

On late Thursday morning — now two days after Cawthorn got his first call from American Samoa — the situation room overlooking Oakland City Hall was still bustling. Maps of American Samoa surrounded the room — one showing the island’s Starkist Tuna cannery, another displaying regions where nearly 40 percent of buildings had been submerged.

Cawthorn was back at his computer, now gathering news about the next potential Pacific disaster: A typhoon scheduled to hit Guam on Friday.

For this emergency, the Oakland office was having crews sent out to the island in advance. As Cawthorn received word that winds were topping 130 miles per hour, a uniformed official walked out to the situation room and announced: “It’s now categorized as a Super Typhoon, Category 4.”

One woman couldn’t help but burst out into a frustrated laugh. Then, she got back to work.

To see more of the Contra Costa Times, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to

Copyright (c) 2009, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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