A tsunami this past July off the south coast of Java left 700 people dead. The casualty toll demonstrates both progress and shortcomings as Pacific Rim nations strive to build a robust tsunami warning system. Two years ago, when the Indian Ocean tsunami swept entire communities into the sea, there were no tsunami detection buoys in the region. Today, the affected nations are building a detection and warning system. But emergency managers agree that personal preparedness is as important as the latest warning technology.
The United States has deployed 20 deep-sea sensor buoys in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Caribbean basins. The first of 32 new tsunami-warning sirens along the U.S. northwest coast has just gone up, next to the Sandy Point fire station in Washington State. If that siren ever blares for three minutes straight followed by a pre-recorded voice announcing, "Move to higher ground immediately! Do not delay. Do not call 911!" that means a tsunami - or tidal wave - is headed this way.
Volunteer fireman Ralph Peterson has watched a computer simulation of what that could mean for the flat peninsula near Bellingham. "If the Big One should hit off of Vancouver Island," he explains, "Sandy Point would be covered by about [two meters] of water coming in at 3-5 knots. The Fire Department is probably at sea level."
There are several hundred beach homes on the Point that could disappear under fast rising water. Fire chief Jim Petri is excited to see the long sought after warning siren. But he knows it will take more than the high tech gizmo to save lives. "You know, it's one thing to have the unit up and say we're done. We're not done. We've only just begun. We need to educate the public so when they hear it, they know what to do." He's far from alone. Two dozen West Coast towns that are getting new sirens face the challenge of publicizing evacuation routes and assembly points.
Washington state earthquake and tsunami program manager George Crawford says tsunami preparedness is definitely rising. But he knows it has a ways to go. "I get this question all the time: Are you prepared? No, I'm not prepared. I'll never probably be 100 percent prepared."
In fact right now, Washington State estimates more than half of the people along the coast are unprepared. A researcher hired by the state government mailed questionnaires to coastal homes and quizzed tourists on the beaches. Crawford says the bottom line from the more than 300 responses is that people understand that tsunamis happen here. But they haven't done much about it. "In other words, have they walked the evacuation routes? Do they have a preparedness kit? Do they have NOAA weather radios, for example?"
Crawford says education will be a never-ending task. He wants public preparedness to keep pace with improved warning technology. "You get a tsunami that's coming, for example, within 20 minutes, you need to know what to do. You don't have time to start thinking about it or start looking for things."
Lately, George Crawford has been helping Australia and New Zealand replicate the U.S. preparedness program. Separately, U.S. AID money is paying for tsunami detection buoys, tide gauges, and the construction of a warning network in the Indian Ocean countries. The American government is running the fledgling network on an interim basis until countries in the region are capable of taking over.
Cutting edge research on tsunami hazards is happening at a federal research lab in Seattle. Lab director Eddie Bernard says the recent disaster along the coast of Java, Indonesia, provided evidence of progress -- and of the distance left to go. "Seven hundred people were killed by the tsunami in Java on July 17th. About 24,000 people were at risk," he notes. "So if you look at the number of people at risk versus the number of people who died, it's about three percent. That's a horrible loss of life, but it could have been much worse. Because remember in 2004, in some of those communities, 80 percent of the people were killed."
the U.S. West Coast" hspace=2 src="/english/images/tsunami-sign.jpg" width=210 align=left vspace=2 border=0>The Seattle-based expert hammers home simple ideas every chance he gets. One, if you're on the coast and feel a strong earthquake, head for higher ground immediately. Another sign to hightail it out of there is if you see the ocean waters abruptly recede. If it's nighttime and you can't see the ocean withdraw, listen for a loud roar. That's another warning sign to move inland.