What To Do During And How To Stay Safe A Tsunami

Utter devastation. None of us can erase the images we saw on television caused by the 2004 indian ocean tsunami. But as we watched from afar, most Americans were secure in the belief that they are immune to the risks of tsunamis. Unfortunately, however, that is foolish thinking. The reality is that tsunamis are projected to hit the U.S. at some point, and the time to prepare is now. Get the facts about these deadly “waves.”

The cause of tsunami

Translated from Japanese, tsunami actually means “harbor wave.” The term originates from Japanese fishermen who would travel back to shore from days at sea, only to find devastation caused by these massive ocean surges, which are usually not visible from the ocean. They have often been misnamed “tidal waves” because of the way they mimic a massive tide coming in and out  violently. In actuality, however, they are not affected by tidal changes, but rather are a product of submarine or underwater seismic activities commencing from ocean-floor earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and landslides.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) a federal agency that monitors the oceans, atmosphere, weather and climate changes subduction earthquakes are the most common causes of tsunamis and occur when tectonic plates collide. That force pushes the ocean to move, forming these enormous, powerful waves. The last two massive tsunamis, the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster and the 2011 Japanese tragedy, were both generated by these types of earthquakes. The fault lines and movement of tectonic plates under the Pacific and Indian Oceans are among the most active in the world, and because of this, we often hear the term “ring of fire” to describe all the seismic commotion.

Pacific Plate Image source: Wikipedia

How much time do you have before a tsunami ?

Following an earthquake, the timeline varies on how soon a tsunami will hit, mostly depending on how far into the ocean the event that caused it was. But no matter what, you won’t have long to prepare. The NOAA simulations show that when a 9.0 earthquake hit the United States coast in 1900, the initial tsunami wave followed just 20 to 30 minutes later, with waves as high as 30 feet.

A tsunami is due: effects of tsunami

As a society, we often underestimate the power of water and are generally shocked by the damage it causes. Dr. Dan Cox, Professor of Ocean and Coastal Engineering at Oregon State University and a scientist for the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, suggests that a tsunami hitting the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which runs from Vancouver, Canada to Northern California, could wreak havoc on the Pacific Northwest. In fact, previous tsunamis have already hit this area, and the next one can’t be far behind.

Image source: Fludaskoli

“The research done by Brian Atwater about the 1700s Cascadia earthquake and tsunami in the Pacific Northwest shows us that this could happen again and that the cycle, which comes every 300 to 500 years, is fast approaching,” he says. “In fact, this cycle has repeated itself for up to 6,000 years.” The remains of this past damage are called the “ghost forests,” decimated forestland along the coasts in Oregon and Washington that epitomize exactly the devastation the “Big One” can cause.

The tsunami surge rushes in and tramples all in its path. “Tsunamis have behaviors, and those behaviors affect the damage they inflict and how prepared you have to be,” Cox says. “Near-field tsunamis, like the one in Japan in 2011, only give residents about a 10-minute or less warning of their impact. Their devastation is on a massive scale. On the other hand, far-field tsunamis can be anticipated like ones that have hit Hawaii, where there have been hours to prepare for their impacts.

Tsunami waves get higher the closer they get to land. (Source: iStockphoto)

” Is it possible to prepare for a disaster as epic as a tsunami? “Yes, there are community drills in danger zones and more activity and awareness to help people escape,” says Cox. Due to the immediate reaction needed when a tsunami attacks, the best advice is to be aware of the resources available to you in your community, he recommends.

In the end, it is your “situational awareness” that will count the most, insists Patrick Corcoran, Extension Coastal Hazards Outreach Specialist and Professor at Oregon State University. “Take a walk one night, locate the inundation zones and find the evacuation route ahead of time,” Corcoran recommends. “Be prepared to move to higher ground and realize you are not immune from getting hurt. The ‘Big One’ is inevitable.”

Prepare for a tsunami

The first step in escaping a tsunami is educating yourself, so find the “higher ground” now before it is too late.  With as little as 20 to 30 minutes before a tsunami hits, you must prepare now for what you’d do if you live near the coast.

  • Map out where you would go—on foot, because roads will be flooded.
  • Share a meet-up location with your family so every-one will be able to reunite.

What should you do if it’s coming?

  1. ON THE BEACH

    Photo: Illustration by Hamyquah McLiver

    If you feel the earth shake, do not wait for a tsunami warning, experts at the NOAA say. “Move immediately to higher ground,” the agency advises on its Web site. “A regional tsunami from a
    local earthquake could strike some areas before a tsunami warning could be announced.”

  2. AT SEA

    You are actually slightly better off deeper at sea in the event of a tsunami, since the “wave activity is imperceptible in the open ocean,” the NOAA says. Therefore, if you hear of a tsunami on shore from your boat’s radio, do not return to port. “If you are aware there is a tsunami warning and you have time to move your vessel to deep water, then you may want to do so in an orderly manner, in consideration of other vessels,” the agency suggests.