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Tsunami Warning Causes Panic, Sends People Fleeing

Refugees hunkered down at the top of highways 17 and 152 during the scare.

The tsunami warning issued Friday morning had county residents heading for the hills—literally.

People looking for higher ground headed up highways 152 and 17, then camped out waiting for the tsunami danger to pass.

“I think it was just ... people woke up and heard the news and kind of freaked out,” Watsonville police Sgt. Saul Gonzalez said. “The streets are dead. I think everyone left."

But no tsunami-related problems were reported in Watsonville, authorities said.

"It was more traffic, panicky-type stuff. There were a couple of skirmishes at the gas pumps," Gonzalez said.

Highway 152 was packed with vehicles from Mount Madonna on into Santa Clara County. The California Highway Patrol was called out to direct traffic.

Luis Cordova and Claudia Soltelo were at the Sprig Day Use picnic and hiking area on the Gilroy side of Hecker Pass with their children, Gared and Louisa. The Watsonville family fled their home after a neighbor called them at 2:30 a.m. to warn them about the tsunami. Hours later, they were sitting on a table with some snacks.

"We've been waiting a long time," Cordova said, "This is like a long picnic."

Watsonville siblings Diego and Claudia Hernandez were also among the refugees.

“Around five in the morning, my grandma called," Claudia Hernandez said. "I really got scared. At that time, we didn't know what to do."

People from all over Santa Cruz County headed up Highway 17 to the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains and camped out in parking lots until evacuation warnings had been lifted.

The majority of people showed up in the early-morning hours after hearing the warnings to leave low-lying areas. The parking lot at the Casa Del 17 store at the summit and the lot across the street, where the Summit Roadhouse used to be, were filled to capacity until around 9 a.m.

“We got here at 7 a.m., and it was already packed with people. Some had been here since 4 a.m.,” said Aptos resident Rachel Santana.

Santana said she started getting phone calls at around 1 a.m. from frantic family members. Although she says she really didn’t want to evacuate, living only three blocks from the ocean, she thought it was best for her and her family.

“I figured it was better to be safe than sorry,” she said. “The mother in me said I should go.”

Santana, her husband, Alfonso, and their three children, ages 2, 4 and 12, evacuated along with four carloads of about 20 family members.

The Santanas said they didn’t have time to pack too much but did bring the essentials, such as blankets, food, water, diapers and medicine.

“It’s a weird thing to get ready for,” Alfonso Santana said. “We are always prepared for an earthquake, but how do you prepare for this? Really, you just need a boat.”

Santa Cruz resident Bruno Palacios said he received a phone call from a friend at 6 a.m. asking if he could pick him and his family up and help evacuate them. The friend told Palacios that everyone in his apartment building on Portola and 17th avenues was evacuating.

“I was really worried, because I saw the videos from Japan last night,” Palacios said. “When I went to bed, I was concerned about the impact it would have here.”

People made their way to the summit from as far south as Watsonville.

Maria Nico, 15, and her family, who live in West Beach in Watsonville, grabbed the necessities and headed to the mountains at 8 a.m.

“We were really worried,” Nico said. “We didn’t have a lot of time to think about what to bring so we just grabbed food and clothes and came here.”

The extended family of 12 spent the morning playing soccer and listening to the radio to get information and figure out when they could safely head home.

Johanna Maya Puga and her family woke up at 4 a.m. and arrived at the summit at 5:30 a.m.

“I didn’t know what was going on when they woke me up,” the 12-year-old Santa Cruz resident said. “We only had time to bring blankets and food.”

By 10 a.m. the majority of people had made their way back down the mountain. A couple dozen cars remained, with some people worried about heading back toward the beaches.

“I’m going to stay here until I hear that it is officially safe to go back,” Palacios said. “I’ve never experienced anything like this, so I want to be sure that it is safe.”

Though Santa Cruz County did use an automated system to call people in areas that were being evacuated, the Santanas said they didn’t think enough was done to tell people how and where they should be evacuating.

“I feel like all they said was to go to higher ground,” Rachel Santana said. “But they really should have made the community more aware of what to do. They needed to give more instructions. Nobody knows what to do in that situation.”

Alfonso Santana agreed.

“We live in an earthquake area, so you would think they would know how to get information out to people,” he said.

Pam Moreno March 11, 2011 at 08:24 PM
I could not understand the panic. We were advised on tv to evacuate only if we had received a reverse 911 call. To create this panic only puts more people in danger. Having experienced the 89 earthquake, it concerns me that if we were to have a real emergency, how many of our residents would be able to handle the situation. I work for the PVUSD and the few students that did arrive for classes were terrified. Ignorance is not bliss.
ricky reyes March 11, 2011 at 09:05 PM
I stayed in Watsonville because after watching the news I felt safe just to stay home. I dropped off my kids at school like normal. I talked to my friends and found out people were getting spooked by people that were miss informed or misunderstood about the actual people that needed to leave. In my area a few people were scared but most had watched the news and didn't rely on secondhand information. Once the fear spread a lot of people were affected and fled.
ricky reyes March 11, 2011 at 09:15 PM
Why did so many people freak out! Anyone who watched the news knew not to panic. Fear and ignorance is a bitch!
Cathy P. March 11, 2011 at 09:20 PM
I had to drive over Hwy 17 at 6am this morning. I was shocked to see so many people camping out in their cars at the Summit; on both sides of the road it was like a parking lot. The entire stretch of hwy, all the way to Los Gatos was very quiet also. Really surreal!!!
Cathy P. March 11, 2011 at 09:26 PM
I also watched a live feed from the Santa Cruz Harbor. The boats being tossed around like toy boats in a bathtub was really something to see. I couldn't believe the "Darwin Award Contestants" standing on the cement bridge above it all either. What part of "stay away from the beach" didn't they understand?
bluffho March 11, 2011 at 10:27 PM
This made my drive into work from Watsonville a nightmare - I couldn't even get out of my driveway because my home is right downtown, a couple of streets from 129. It was crazy and people were in a panic over nothing, fighting... bumper to bumper... making u-turns in the middle of the street because traffic was at a standstill, trying to find other paths East as the mass exodous continued to grow. I think, also, part of the issue was that so many families had non-English speaking members who were not getting the full story (not enough of the news & proper recommendations were being broadcast in Spanish). The tsunami advisory was "voluntary evacuation" if you felt like it and only for people within a block or two from the beach. But most families heard about it from relatives nowhere near Santa Cruz.
Brad Kava (Editor) March 11, 2011 at 10:29 PM
Thank you all for posting and keeping your neighbors informed!!!! Social media works.
Anonymous March 11, 2011 at 10:38 PM
I live in Santa Cruz and had absolutely no idea about the tsunami until i got a missed call from a friend in ohio(around 3:30am pacific time) as well as facebook messages from friends in ohio telling me to evacuate. I am so greatful that the tsunami died down by the time the waters came to the beaches of santa cruz, california. I have so much sorrow and empathy for all those in Japan~I pray for those who suffered such a horrific event and for those who are lost in the water. May God Bless you all as well as this entire globe, for the signs of the times (in my opinion) point to shorter days...
Berkeley mom March 11, 2011 at 11:06 PM
I got a panicked call from my daughter in SC at around 1:30am. She and her roomies didn't know what to do! They don't have a tv and were relying on the internet for information which was confused at best. I was having a hard time finding reliable information also. (Not many of my friends were awake on Facebook either!) Finally, I called the non-emergency police line and asked them what the kids should do. They said to wait for a call to evacuate, but I said they don't have a LAN line, only cell phones! I wasn't sure if they had a radio to listen for emergency instructions. Then I was told that the house was in a low-lying area and that the household would be notified directly by police going door-to-door. We all felt a little better about this. But in this digital age it sure is hard to tell what to do AND what exactly would happen if a tsunami hit. I went to bed with dreams of Katrina! Even by 3am there wasn't a whole lot out there! I don't think it was dumb for people to leave who were close to the beach. It was scary, and those pictures from Japan are awful! My heart goes to them.
CCC March 12, 2011 at 01:38 AM
Crazy breeds crazy! there should have been more information for people so they didnt have to waste precious gas running all over the county and clogging up the roads! I personally took my camera, and my dog to the beach in Aptos, and had the place to myself. I took pictures--of nothing--and chatted with some hearty locals. It was a great day to be down at the beach, not hiding up in the mountains for no reason. Good grief!
Brad Kava (Editor) March 12, 2011 at 01:47 AM
I really think people were more affected than they realized by the Thailand tsunami. They figured it was time to play it safe and head for the hills. It didn't used to be that way. They'd be rushing the other way in the old days to grab a wave.
Jennifer Squires March 12, 2011 at 06:45 AM
People do need a simple way to get accurate information at any hour. News can be a great source for this, but is not always up to date. Here is one thing I recommend everyone take three minutes and do right now: Residents anywhere in Santa Cruz County can actually register their cell phones (yes, not land lines) to receive the emergency calls from the county's 911 center. Here's the link: http://ww2.citywatchonline.com/Public/Signup.aspx?SUID=mRkOMVM1X7xOY7hWz1vSWA== You still give your address (conceivably, you could also register your business, an elderly relative's home, etc to stay informed) so you only receive calls for situations affecting your neighborhood. This service was used for Friday's tsunami warnings, but it's also utilized when children or at-risk adults go missing, for wildfires or other natural disasters and if there is a violent situation (such as the police standoff in the DeLaveaga neighborohood in Santa Cruz last fall. We have a lot of ways to communicate these days. This one is simple and free, and it probably could have saved people a lot of stress, sleep and gas last night.
Rita Leibovitz March 12, 2011 at 03:31 PM
Thank you for this information. I hope people with cell phones punch it into their call lines. You have given many GREAT information and hopefully, will stop SOME of the panic. I live on 17th @ Bromer and stayed home in my bed with my dogs and warm blankets.
Ruth March 13, 2011 at 07:43 AM
We live in Watsonville, saw the news and went on with our day. The media did a fine job informing us that there would be no real danger. Why everyone freaked out is just foolish and ignorant.
Cathy P. March 13, 2011 at 03:49 PM
Jennifer, When I clicked on the link you gave for cell phone notification, the page that came up said the link was invalid. Can you check that please, this is a valuable thing to know about. Thanks.
Jennifer Squires March 14, 2011 at 11:35 PM
Sorry about the bum link. Go to the 911 center's home page here http://www.sccecc.org/and scroll down to the "register your cell or VOIP phone for emergency notifications" link. That should work!

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