NOAA 2001-232
Contact: Delores Clark

Tsunami Education a Priority in Hawaii and West Coast States

Last month's earthquake in Seattle should serve as a wake-up call to the looming, deadly threat of tsunamis, said Charles McCreery, director of NOAA's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. "We can't accurately predict when and where earthquakes will occur, but we can determine if a tsunami is generated and help the public learn how best to protect themselves and their families from harm."

NOAA's National Weather Service operates two tsunami warning centers. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach conducts research and monitors tsunamis for Hawaii and U.S. and international interests in the Pacific Basin. The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer has warning responsibility for Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California. The centers work very closely with state emergency managers, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to mitigate potential tsunami hazards.

Although rare, tsunamis can be generated by earthquakes, landslides, underwater slumps, volcanic eruptions and even meteor impacts. Tsunamis are not just one huge wave but several waves that behave more like surges of water that carry debris rapidly onshore. Large tsunamis can destroy everything in their path and can cause fires if fuel lines or storage areas are breached. According to NOAA's International Tsunami Information Center, between 1692 and 1998, 13 major tsunamis occurred in different parts of the world, and over 197,000 lives were lost.

The most devastating tsunamis in Hawaii's history were generated by distant earthquakes and arrived several hours later. With today's fast speed communications systems used by the Tsunami Warning Centers, distant tsunamis can be announced with adequate time to evacuate.

But even advanced technologies cannot predict a tsunami caused by a near shore source in time for wide public notification. In these situations, the earthquake itself could provide the earliest warning. After the ground stops shaking, people near coastal areas should move to higher ground or inland immediately. An earthquake or underwater landslide close to shore could generate a tsunami within minutes.

Strides are being made in tsunami education and research. Following Hawaii's example, tsunami scientists are developing inundation models and evacuation maps in west coast states. Hawaii's maps are published in the county phone directories and show where shelters are located. Alaska is developing inundation maps for Kodiak, Women's Bay, and Homer-Seldovia. California has completed mapping for San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Francisco-San Mateo, and is working on the Central Coast. The Coos Bay, Oregon, inundation map is finished and maps for Waldport, Rockaway, and Florence are in preparation. Washington is completing maps for Juan de Fuca St., Port Townsend, Port Angeles, Neah Bay, La Push, and Puget Sound.

With assistance from NOAA's National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program, new tsunami curriculum has been developed for Washington, Oregon, and California schools as well as video instruction. Earthquake and tsunami evacuation drills are conducted regularly in Washington and Oregon schools. Tsunami interpretive signs have been installed along coastal areas in California, Washington, and Oregon, as well as evacuation signs. In Hawaii, survivor stories are being collected and filed and computer modeling for distance source and local source tsunamis is in progress. NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Lab in Seattle operates four deep water tsunami detection buoys off the coasts of Alaska and Oregon that transmit live wave data to the Tsunami Warning Centers. Seismic networks are being upgraded.

"We know a great deal about tsunamis and there is more to learn. But all this knowledge doesn't matter if the public isn't aware of the danger. Our goal is not to alarm, but to remind the public about safety precautions," said McCreery. "That's why we support Tsunami Awareness Month by sponsoring open houses, exhibits at public events like the Earth Day Fair in Hilo, and giving safety talks at libraries."

Additional information is available at the following Web sites:

NOAA's International Tsunami Information Center

NOAA's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center

NOAA's West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center

NOAA's Tsunami research

NOAA's Tsunami media kit