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From the Archives: The South Asian Tsunami of 2004 – Politics & Emergency Aid (Are We Safe?)

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2014-12-23
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Are We Safe?  Tsunami Dangers on America’s Coasts
by Ron Eggers 

Originally published in our March 2005 issue.

The devastation in Southeast Asia has graphically demonstrated one thing: tsunami dangers are real.  Unfortunately, it has taken a disaster of that magnitude to make the American public aware of that fact.  "Before that, you'd mention tsunami and people would snicker," said Gloria Morrison, Emergency Services Coordinator for the City of Huntington Beach, California.  "Now people are paying closer attention."

Tsunami waves recede from Kalutara, Sri Lanka, as shown in this satellite photo taken on December 26th.  The devastation throughout the Indian Ocean caused many American coastal public safety managers to evaluate their own readiness for such a catastrophe.  DIGITALGLOBE

Tsunamis have hit the U.S. in the past.  In 1964, for example, Alaska suffered severe damage as water receded and then rushed in to flood coastal areas after a major earthquake.  Cities like Kodiak, Seward, and Sitka were impacted. 

Huntington Beach, which calls itself Surf City, hasn't experienced a tsunami, but it has had major wave action damage over the years.  During the 20th century, its pier was knocked down four different times.  In the late 1980's, massive waves were so high that they broke over the restaurant at the end of the pier until it was destroyed. 

The question remains, "Is America safe?"  The reality is, the West Coast of America is safer than many coastal areas around the world.  To warn against tsunami danger coming from the East Asian waters, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration installed six deep-sea pressure sensors in the Pacific to provide a six to eight hour warning, but there is no early warning system on the East Coast.

There remain some dangers on the Pacific side, such as waves generated by earthquakes off the shore of California, that are almost impossible to guard against.  Waves generated by a close-to-shore earthquake would come too quickly, in just a matter of minutes, that there really wouldn't be any time to evacuate large numbers of people. 

Florida and other parts of the East Coast suffer from destructive storm surge action generated by hurricanes and a phenomena sometimes referred to as "rogue waves,” where multiple ocean swells merge.  But there's been less of an emphasis on the tsunami dangers on that side of the country.  Seismic activity off the coast of Spain and northern Africa, however, could trigger massive waves that would only take a few hours to cross the Atlantic. 

"That would be such a catastrophic event, it would happen so fast and there would be so little time, that a warning wouldn't do much good," Mark Marchbank, Deputy Coordinator of Emergency Management for the City of Virginia Beach, Virginia, said. 

Virginia Beach, with an average elevation of 12 feet and a maximum of 23, has some 450,000 people living in the danger zone.  There are close to 1.5 million living in the region.  Using evacuation orders in response to hurricane warnings as a gauge, Marchbank wasn't particularly optimistic about moving large numbers of people out of harms way.  When warnings were issued, the evacuation response was lukewarm.

"In a hurricane scenario, we're talking about 27 hours just to get 300,000 or 400,000 people out of the area.  During a mega-tsunami, we would use all the warning systems we had available to use.  We would encourage people to seek sound structures.  That would seem like the most likely scenario," he said.  The number of people that could be accommodated, however, would be limited. 

With its wave experience, Huntington Beach is well aware of dangers from the sea.  "We've just completed our Hazard Mitigation plan, and wave action damage was part of that," Morrison said.  The city is training its emergency services personnel, as well as auxiliary groups such as its CERT volunteers, to respond.  "We have 20 training classes planned, and tsunamis are going to be the tabletop exercises."

Morrison estimated that, in the event of a major tsunami, some 30 percent of the city's 200,000 residents would have to be moved.  But Huntington Beach doesn't have a lot of high rises, so evacuation would be inland.  It would be difficult to do, she conceded, but it could be done.

She may be a little too optimistic.  Huntington Beach is only one of numerous cities along that stretch of the California coast.  Orange County has over 6 million people, with a large portion of the county's population being affected.  The freeways taking traffic inland are overwhelmed by the daily commute.  Large-scale evacuations along the entire coastline could, potentially, be chaotic.

Alaska has the greatest potential for a tsunami, but it also has the least number of people to deal with.  Sitka, for example, with only about 10,000 people and 7,000 more tourists in the summer, faces a much more manageable evacuation challenge, said Nathan Young, a fire department shift engineer who serves as an assistant to Sitka's Fire Chief/Emergency Manager.

Sitka has attacked the problem aggressively.  "We're one of a handful of cities that have completed what's called the State of Alaska Tsunami Ready program.  It basically certifies a community that has gone through four or five years of planning to set up different programs to make it storm and tsunami ready.

"We've placed signage around town designating tsunami evacuation zones, and signs prompting people how to get to those zones.  We have an elementary school and a high school that are evacuation points."

Morrison, Marchbank and Young all stressed the need for effective ways to notify people.  "The most important aspect of the plan is alerting and warning the people," Morrison said.  Sirens have been installed at seven fire stations in her city to do that.

"You have to get the word out every way you can," Marchbank said.  Virginia Beach would utilize the Emergency Alert system, just as it would for hurricanes, but the city wants to go beyond that.  "We're looking at various options to warn people, including a reverse 9-1-1 type of Emergency Notification system."

Sitka also uses sirens, but it has already gone one step further, said Young.  "The city also bought NOAA (weather alert) radios that were positioned through out the community.  I think we placed about 150 wall mounted units with battery back up in administrative offices."  With the sirens and radio notifications, he's confident that the city's evacuation plan would work.  "We have a 30 minute window to evacuate about 75 percent of the affected area."

Coast Guard facilities on both coasts indicated a heightened awareness of tsunami dangers.  "If we received a tsunami warning, the Coordination Center here in Juneau would mobilize our aircraft and our cutters to meet the needs of whatever communities are impacted,” said Ray Dwyer, the search and rescue controller for Alaska's District 17.  “But that's what we do every day."

So far, no procedural changes have been implemented.  "If any changes are coming, they would be coming out of Washington," noted Petty Officer Sandra Bartlett, out of District 7 headquarters in Miami, FL. 

Currently there are only six tsunami buoys installed, all in the Pacific.  To better protect the West Coast, and add protection for the East, the NOAA tsunami warning system is going to be expanded to 38 buoys, with seven to be installed in the Atlantic and the rest to be added to the Pacific.  The $37.5 million program should be finalized by mid-2007. 

Unfortunately, it's realistic to expect that, with major metropolitan areas on both coasts, should a tsunami be triggered in Southeast Asia or the eastern Atlantic that hits the U.S., even with early warning systems and evacuation plans in place, there would be significant loss of life and extensive property damage.  America may not be quite as safe as it feels. 

Ron Eggers is a Senior Editor with NewsWatch Feature Service and a frequent contributor to 9-1-1 Magazine. He is a member of the City of Costa Mesa's Disaster Preparedness Committee and serves as a Public Information Officer for the Orange County Chapter of the American Red Cross.

See our other archived Asian Tsunami stories: 

The Hungry Sea: An International Response for Global Public Safety
by Shawn Alladio

Tsunami Rescue & Recovery: Inter-Agency Politics in a Disaster Zone
by Jeremy Zakis

When All Else Fails, Amateur Radio Lends Invaluable Messaging Support
By Bob Josuweit



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