Improved Warning Systems
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) bears the primary responsibility of providing tsunami warnings. Sadly, many of the major developments in establishing a reliable warning system have come in the wake of killer tsunamis. It seems disaster begets solution. For instance, a 7.8 earthquake in the Aleutian Islands in 1946 spawned a series of tsunamis that surged as high as 130 feet and took 165 lives. Interestingly only six died in Alaska — including five keepers at the Scotch Cap Lighthouse when the five-story steel-reinforced concrete structure was swept off Unimak Island by a 100-foot wave. The other 159 victims fell when the tsunami hit Hawaii largely unannounced nearly five hours later. This tragedy resulted in NOAA establishing the Seismic Sea Wave Warning System in Hawaii — the forerunner of the current Pacific Tsunami Warning System — in 1949.
NOAA created the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center (WC/ATWC) in Palmer, Alaska, in 1967 as a direct result of the great 9.2 Alaska earthquake of 1964. Of 132 deaths, 122 were attributed to the Pacific-wide tsunami that generated a maximum wave height of 220 feet at Valdez Inlet in Prince William Sound. Today, the WC/ATWC continues to issue tsunami warnings for Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California.
In 2001 the National Weather Service developed the TsunamiReady program to help coastal communities better prepare for tsunamis. It works with community leaders and emergency administrators to develop plans that include evacuation routes and redundant systems of alerting the public. Choosing one of these harbors as your home base and including them as stopovers while cruising may improve your chances should a tsunami threat exist. Visit www.tsunamiready.noaa.gov/ts-communities.htm for a list of TsunamiReady sites.
Tsunami awareness reached new highs in December 2004 when a 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Sumatra. The series of killer tsunamis it unleashed claimed the lives of some 250,000 people — the highest tsunami death total on record. An onslaught of news reports and amateur videos ensured that tsunami became a household word overnight. It also underscored the need for an even better alert system since tens of thousands died without warning. The fact that the farthest tsunami victim was nearly 5,000 miles from the quake’s epicenter also highlighted the need for better worldwide communication. As a result, monitoring and communication systems improved. And they continue to get better year to year.
As good as tsunami warning systems have become, however, it takes a minimum of approximately five minutes before any warning can be issued. That’s how long it takes to gather the seismic information, assimilate the data, determine whether a tsunami is likely and then issue a warning if deemed necessary. Therefore, if you are in close proximity to a tsunami-generating earthquake, the tsunami may arrive before you receive an official warning. What can a boater do in cases like that?