Earthquakes can be a deadly occurrence. When they happen, it’s easy to go into shock. But for those that are located near the coast (and we’re talking hundreds of miles off the coast here), the time period after an earthquake or another sort of underwater disturbance requires critical and thoughtful action.
...Because, in many cases, a tsunami is soon to follow.
The recent destructive tsunami in Indonesia in late December 2018 was a reminder, again, that tsunamis are a very real natural disaster threat. That’s why now is a good time to brush up on tsunami history and discover the information regarding preparation.
But first things first--which parts of the United States are actually at risk?
Areas at Risk for Tsunamis
Around 80% of tsunamis begin along the Pacific Ocean’s seismically active “Ring of Fire.” Within the United States, Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska, and Hawaii are at the highest risk for tsunamis since they could be affected by seismic and volcanic activity in this region. A tsunami natural disaster in California, Oregon, and Washington would reach far inland and impact the states of Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona as well.
And although the East Coast and Gulf Coast have a lower tsunami risk, an occurrence is certainly possible. Scientists have found that the most likely sources for an East Coast tsunami could either be:
- An underwater avalanche along the continental slope.
- Waves caused by an asteroid splashing into the ocean. In fact, according to Live Science, “astronomers already have their eye on one rock that could hit in the distant future.” We’ve all heard of the many near misses.
When it comes to the Gulf Coast, Live Science also shared that “A fault line in the Caribbean has generated deadly tsunamis before. Up to 35 million people could be threatened by one in the not-too-distant future, scientists say.”
Don’t live near a coastline? You still may not be safe. Should an earthquake occur in the right spot, tsunamis could occur in lakes and lagoons, such as Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada.
And although you may not live near a coast or tsunami zone, there are still valuable lessons we can use when vacationing and visiting these areas. Or from the impact of strained local resources that would be sent to aid coastal destruction.
Read on. I’m covering the historical cases of famous tsunamis that occurred in 1960, 2004, and 2011. That’s a lot in recent history. I’ll also share five key tsunami preparedness tips that will help you prepare for future cases of monster waves.
Let’s dive in...
1960 Tsunami: Chile, Hawaii, & Beyond
On May 22, 1960, a 9.4-9.6 magnitude earthquake, the largest ever measured, struck off the coast of southern Chile. As residents along the coast began searching for friends and loved ones amidst the rubble, they began to notice something strange. The tide had drawn back, and the seafloor was exposed. What came fifteen minutes later took many by surprise--an 80-foot tall tsunami along the Chilean coastline.
It’s estimated that the Great Chilean Earthquake and the tsunami that followed claimed more than 5,000 lives in Chile. Another tsunami resulting from the quake struck Hilo Bay in Hawaii, some 6,200 miles away from the quake’s epicenter. Striking 15 hours after the quake, the wave caused millions of dollars of damage in the area and killed 61 people.
The effects didn’t stop there. The 1960 earthquake also triggered tsunami waves on the West Coast of the United States, Japan, and the Philippines. This case proves just how far tsunamis can travel from an earthquake’s epicenter. Simply because an underwater disturbance happens across the globe, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re safe.
2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami
On the day after Christmas in 2004, a giant earthquake occurred in the Indian Ocean. Tsunamis were triggered in 14 countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, claimed 227,898 lives, and caused over $15 billion in damages. Because many of these countries were full of international tourists on vacation, dozens of Americans were some of those impacted.
For example, the Firmage family from Northern California was on a beach on Phi Phi island in Thailand, when they noticed the seafloor and reef were exposed. According to James Firmage, “the longtail boats that pick up tourists for day excursions were sitting on the sand instead of floating in two to three feet of water of the shallow bay.” His wife, Vivian, had also awoken in the morning to tremors but had assumed it was one of her young daughters jumping off a bed.
Soon enough, they saw a wall of water heading their way and were forced to run for their lives. Fortunately, they found higher ground, and they spent the night in the jungle with other survivors.
For many months and even years following the tsunami, communities in these locations had to be completely rebuilt.
2011 Japan (Tōhoku) Tsunami
Tōhoku tsunami, the most recent example I’m sharing today, struck Japan in 2011. Caused by an 8.9 magnitude earthquake, the resulting death toll exceeded 20,000.
Additionally, there was significant damage to infrastructure within the country. For example, there were…
- Multiple roads and railways out of service.
- A dam collapse.
- Level 7 meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex. This resulted in the loss of electricity in at least six million homes, which is 10% of Japan's households.
Millions of survivors were without water, food, or heat in near-freezing temperatures for several days after the tsunami and quake hit.
As you can see, the effects of a tsunami extend beyond the initial impact. Knowing how to prepare and remain aware could make the difference when it comes to surviving.
5 Tsunami Preparedness Tips
As with many emergency situations, in order to survive a tsunami, you need to be prepared, calm, and aware.
More specifically, keep the following five tips in mind to ensure you and your family will survive...
#1: Pay attention to natural warnings.
Like early civilizations and even indigenous societies today, it’s handy to learn to understand patterns and signs in the natural world. This ensures survival against everything from poisonous plants to dangerous storms.
When it comes to tsunamis, there are several specific natural warnings such as…
- The sea/ocean/lake waters quickly receding and leaving bare sand, reef, and other sea life exposed. This typically means that there will be a sudden surge of water inland.
- Any odd behavior changes in animals--such as vacating the area or grouping together in unusual ways.
- The sound of an approaching tsunami--typically a loud "roaring" sound similar to that of a train or jet engine.
#2: Heed official warnings.
Fortunately, thanks to modern science and monitoring systems, local authorities typically have the ability to issue warnings ahead of time. Research in advance how your local authorities plan to make warnings so you don’t miss them. Sign up for alerts, and take heed of them, even if they seem ambiguous or you think the danger has passed.
For example, when the 1960 earthquake triggered the tsunami in Hawaii, The Pacific Tsunami Warning System was in effect and warnings were issued to Hawaiians six hours before the wave’s expected arrival. However, some people ignored the warnings, and others even headed to the coast to see the wave--proving to be a deadly decision.
That said, if you notice natural warning signs first, don’t wait for local authorities to issue a warning. If you are located along the coast and notice signs, evacuate the area as quickly as possible.
#3: Expect more than one wave.
Tsunamis are often more than one wave. In fact, there may be multiple waves lasting for hours and can increase in size over time. In the case of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, the second wave was the largest. Many survivors of the first wave started searching for survivors only to be hit by additional waves.
Don’t simply take other people’s word for it--it’s better to wait than to return to danger zones and be caught off guard by incoming waves. If possible, listen for updates on the radio or other sources for confirmation that it’s safe to return.
#4: Head for high ground.
According to Live Science, “When a tsunami comes ashore, areas less than 25 feet above sea level and within a mile of the sea will be in the greatest danger.”
If you have forewarning, move away from the coast, lakes, and other bodies of water, and head towards higher ground. As Wikihow recommends, “Move until you are either 2 miles (3,200 m) inland or 100 feet (30 m) above sea level.
If you don’t have much time or access to high ground isn’t possible, you have a few alternative options. For example, you can find a tall and sturdy building and go as high as you can, even onto the roof. Although the building may collapse, this could be your only option and hope for survival, so it’s worth a try.
If there’s no sturdy building in sight, your last-resort option is to find a tall and strong tree and climb as high as you can. Again, not ideal, but it may be your only option.
#5: Abandon your possessions, but pack an emergency kit in advance.
Once you know a tsunami could be headed your way, time is of the essence. The last thing you want to concern yourself with is saving family heirlooms, tech products, and other items you may see as valuable.
Your focus should be on getting to a safe area--and fast. What will come in handy is an emergency pack that you prepare in advance and keep in a location that makes it easy to quickly grab on your way out the door.
In the emergency pack, be sure to include items such as a hand-crank solar radio, compass, emergency food supply, first aid supplies, and water purifier. Survival continues after the tsunami has passed, as freshwater supplies will be disrupted, food supplies will be unavailable, and buildings will be destroyed. For example, in the 2011 tsunami in Japan, supplies were hard to access for a long time due to the disruption in transportation and damaged roadways.
Additionally, note that people within several hundred miles of the coast will be impacted as roads are few east-west off the coast. Supplies and staging will clog those arteries, and stores will empty as supplies are shifted to the impacted areas. Therefore, make sure you and your family are well stocked on supplies that could disappear quickly in the case of an emergency.
Based on past statistics, major tsunamis happen about twice per decade. And as we know, there are many places in the United States and abroad that could be impacted. They have been in the past, and they will be again at some point in the future, with little warning. Therefore, it’s important to remain vigilant, educated, and aware. Most of all, we should remain prepared.
It could mean the difference between life and death.
Have a great weekend and stay alert.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply