Several tsunami evacuation routes blocked by locked gates

SOUTH BEND, Wash. -- Minutes or even seconds could make the difference between life and death if a major earthquake and tsunami hits off our coast. Our communities rely on emergency planning to get them to safety quickly. But the KOMO 4 Problem Solvers have uncovered a frightening oversight: several tsunami evacuation routes promise higher ground but in fact those routes are no way to safety.

In peaceful Willapa Bay in Pacific County, saltwater tides create life's daily rhythm. Those who live and work there have a healthy respect for the ocean. They know if an earthquake strikes and the tsunami sirens blow, they need to get to higher ground fast.

But in Willapa Bay, instead of a route to safety, they'll find padlocked gates on the logging roads that lead to higher ground -- large steel locked gates that prevent any vehicles from getting to safety.

Driving a 15-mile stretch of Highway 101 with South Bend we found gate after gate locked.

"Every viable road that would take you up to high ground is gated off -- whether it's a designated evacuation route or not-- and that's a problem," said South Bend resident Patti Lutzenhiser.

'You Just Take Off'

Tsunami and earthquake experts say a major earthquake off the West Coast would copycat what happened in Japan. It could create a tsunami with waves as high as 100 feet in some places that would hit the shore in minutes. Tsunami Expert and former director of NOAA's Pacific marine Environmental Lab Dr. Eddie Bernard says this isn't something you wait on and get confirmation from somebody.

"You just take off because the consequences of not taking off in this type of phenomenon is you die," he said.

About 70 people work at Goose Point & Nisbet Oyster Company, which is located right on the water. Safety and Plant Manager Kathleen Nisbet is appalled that evacuation routes were locked up - and no one was notified. If a tsunami had happened? "We would have been evacuating, gone up to a road that was closed and turn around and have to go somewhere else and you're wasting valuable time."

The John Hancock Timber Company purchased the land about a year ago, installing gates on every access road. These evacuation routes are clearly marked out here, but there's nothing here to warn you that the route itself is really blocked.

Lutzenhiser wants to know, "whoever manages this - or is in charge of public safety... who's minding the store?"

That would be Stephanie Fritts, Pacific County's Director of Emergency Management. When we asked if a timber company could lock up those evacuation routes, Fritts replied: "It's private property...they can do that because it is private property."

But when the Problem Solvers contacted the timber company, they told us that Pacific County had approved the locked gates. That doesn't sit well with tiny Bay Center where the highest elevation is just 45 feet.

"If a tsunami comes it's gonna come right straight through that little grove here and take everything out in this harbor," said resident Randy Rhoades.

Bay Center's only nearby high points are those locked logging roads off Highway 101.

"No one's safe with those roads closed," says Terry Disney.

And this doesn't just affect residents. During the tourist season, Pacific County tells us their population swells by another 100,000 people.

Gates Now Unlocked

The good news is as soon as the Problem Solvers contacted John Hancock Timber, the company agreed immediately to unlock those gates.

"We're being very proactive for the safety of the community out there," said Regional Manager Dave Boyd.

So anyone driving this stretch of 101 now has a clear route to safety.

This doesn't just affect residents there. During the tourist season, Pacific County tells us their population swells by another 100-thousand people.