Peninsula disaster service signups swell after weather scares

Following two weeks of bizarre weather and natural disaster warnings, the number of people signing up for San Mateo County’s wireless emergency alert system has soared.

Total SMC alert subscriptions rose by nearly 10 percent following a two-week period in which the Peninsula experienced both tsunami and tornado warnings, according to the county’s Office of Emergency Services.

As of Monday morning, county-wide SMC alert subscriptions totaled 15,475 — an increase of 1,476 since tsunami warnings were issued to coastal areas March 11 — according to Jeff Norris, district coordinator of the county’s Office of Emergency Services.

Bizarre Bay Area weather is said to have also contributed to the rise. Last Friday, the National Weather Service briefly issued a tornado warning in San Mateo County, and water spouts were reported off of Half Moon Bay’s coast and Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

The SMC wireless alert system, which sends out disaster warnings to cellphone and email accounts, also saw a rise in subscriptions in Pacifica and Half Moon Bay — the areas most affected by the tsunami warnings. After the tornado warning, Pacifica’s subscriptions rose to 2,566 from 2,406. Half Moon Bay’s count rose to 3,155 from 2,952.

The number of subscriptions, however, doesn’t necessarily indicate a precise head count, as people can subscribe to alerts for more than one city, Norris said.

“This is something we’re going to try to continue,” Norris said of the wireless alert system. “We’ll keep using it until we have something better.”

Tsunami warnings were issued to alert-service subscribers in the county’s coastal area two weeks ago, hours after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Japan. Roughly 2,864 phones were contacted in Pacifica, Half Moon Bay and the warning areas within the unincorporated county, Norris said.

The projected cost of the tsunami response — which included a voluntary evacuation, school and beach closures and the opening of American Red Cross shelters — was about $144,000, said Bill O’Callahan, head of the county Office of Emergency Services.

Following the tornado warning, Half Moon Bay’s interim police Chief Lee Violett said schools took precautionary measures and instituted shelters.

Though rare, tornados have occurred on the Peninsula. On March 20, 2005, the National Weather service reported a tornado in downtown South San Francisco.

Though not nearly as strong as some twisters in the Midwest, South City’s tornado damaged about 20 businesses and 20 homes, triggered gas leaks and toppled power lines, according to the service’s website.

SMC alert subscriptions

Phone numbers and email addresses registered for the San Mateo County wireless emergency alert system:

Morning, March 11: 13,999
4:30 p.m., March 11: 14,109
Afternoon, March 18: 14,704
Current: 15,475
Half Moon Bay subscriptions: 3,155
Pacifica subscriptions: 2,566

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