DEPOE BAY — In his last official act, outgoing mayor Robert Gambino personally activated the town’s emergency sirens at 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 2, triggering a tidal wave of complaints at city hall when scores of people who evacuated to higher ground learned there was no danger, after all.
Social media outlets were afire in the aftermath of the incident, while respected news outlets such as the Oregonian newspaper headlined “Panic in Depoe Bay” and KOIN-TV. Ch. 6 declared the hair-raising event an outright “false alarm” by city officials.
Some business owners watched employees and shoppers bolt as the horns wailed, air-raid style. Scores of residents and visitors fled their homes and lodgings to higher ground, gathering nervously at elevated rally points above North Point or at the east end of Collins Ave.
Less than an hour after the first of two planned alarms jolted an estimated 3,000 people, flabbergasted Fire Chief Bryan Daniels of the Depoe Bay Fire District incinerated the city’s unilateral decision to sound the sirens for a windstorm that never materialized.
“We have been flooded with calls of concern and panic caused by the City of Depoe Bay activating the Emergency Tsunami Sirens due to the predicted High Wind Watch starting this afternoon,” decried Daniels on the DBFD Facebook page. “This was apparently an alert for the anticipated weather system approaching us. There is no tsunami threat to Depoe Bay or properties within the district. There is no Tsunami. There was no earthquake.”
Gambino had announced in a Friday-night text to a small group of city officials his intention to set the alarms off twice, at 10 a.m. and noon. Before he could activate the second round of sirens, some insiders objected, including Mayor-elect Kathy Short, who lives a hundred feet from one of the klaxons.
“I received the text from Robert that morning or the night before, and then it went off,” recalled Short, whose phone lit with calls from freaked-out city employees. “So I called Robert (Gambino) and asked him not to set off the second.”
Eyewitnesses said Gambino called them together at City Hall Saturday morning, then activated the sirens from a desktop station. City workers feared the worst but said they were powerless to stop the mayor.
“We have no authority to tell him to stand down,” remarked Barbara Chestler, city recorder and a veteran of Alaska emergency services management before coming to Depoe Bay. “He told me he was going to do it. I’m an employee. But it would have been nice to to take into consideration all these people.”
Jack O’Brien, a member of the three-person “EWS Protocol Committee” that sets rules for siren use in Depoe Bay, defended the mayor’s action.
“How to use it was established a long time ago, and my understanding is the NOAA alert and warning was sufficient enough for the city to make it worth announcing,” said O’Brien, who shares the committee with fellow resident Roy Hageman and Mayor Gambino. “It’s just the city exercising its right to inform people through the methods the city has established. It’s as simple as that.”
A veteran city councilman disagreed, claiming sirens should be saved for the Big One. Jerome Grant said he would call for a review of the entire emergency warning system during the city council’s Tuesday, Jan. 5 meeting, where a new mayor and four new councilors will also be sworn-in.
“We need to be clear that Depoe Bay is not an emergency service provider,” said Grant, riled that actual emergency agencies such as the fire district, sheriff and U.S. Coast Guard were kept in the dark. “We’re not the fire or the police. Our job is to make sure the sewer flows downhill and the water uphill.”
Grant said it may be time for the city to cut its losses, anyway, on an aging siren system that was designed for Midwest cities, not the salt-air of the coast.
Brady Weidner, head of public works, shook his head over the affair. He said people, holed-up in their homes under months of Covid shutdown, were on edge, anyway. They knew nothing of the committee’s protocols. “To tell the truth, I can’t come up with an answer why the mayor made that decision,” Weidner said. “He may have meant well but it rattled a lot of folks.
As internet outrage flared and official pressure grew, Gambino issued a news release two days after the event explaining his decision to set off five sirens erected at strategic spots throughout town. Except for periodic tests using chime sounds, it marked the first time the earsplitting wails of doom had been unleashed.
“The City of Depoe Bay activated its Emergency Warning System (EWS) at 10am, Saturday January 2nd in response to a warning issued by the National Weather Service, advising that central Oregon coast areas were under a high wind warning with expected winds to reach 75 mph between noon Saturday and 1am Sunday,” Gambino wrote.
“As per established protocol, the decision to activate the EWS was based on communications with the Mayor, City Recorder, Director of Public Works and two members of the EWS Protocol Committee,” he stated.
Gambino also explained the garbled message about a high-wind warning that interspersed the earsplitting sirens, which some residents found indecipherable.
“The message broadcast was one of six prerecorded (canned) messages included in the system,” Gambino stated. “The message was: ‘Alert, Alert. There is a High Wind Warning in effect for Depoe Bay and surrounding areas. People are advised to take appropriate action. Check reliable media resources for additional information,’ repeated twice. The verbal message (was) preceded and followed by a high frequency wail tone.”
While many thought a tsunami was roaring toward them, Gambino deflected criticism with an acronym: “It should be noted that the EWS is an ‘Emergency Warning System,’ not a ‘tsunami siren.’
A message was left for Mayor Gambino who was contacted by phone for comment but did not return the call 24 hours later.