Perhaps lost in the recent debates related to the earthquake and tsunami in
Japan is that natural disasters and not nuclear energy should be the focus,
says Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s John Sorensen, an emergency preparedness
Sorensen, who has produced several videos to help people survive manmade and
natural disasters, noted that the Pacific Northwest is especially vulnerable to
events similar to the March 11, 2011, earthquake and subsequent tsunami that
devastated cities in northeastern Japan.
coast is definitely at risk, especially to what scientists call a near-term
tsunami caused by an earthquake within about 50 miles of the coast,”
Sorensen said. “Such an earthquake could easily generate 25- to 30-foot
waves that would engulf the coast within minutes.”
While more work in the area of preparedness remains, since 2004 the nation has
made progress by improving the ability to detect and forecast tsunamis,
according to the National Research Council report “Tsunami Warning and
Preparedness.” This is in large part because of the Deep-ocean Assessment
and Reporting of Tsunamis, a sensor network of buoys, and legislation enacted
over the last few years.
“Other federal and state activities to increase tsunami safety include:
improvement to tsunami hazard and evacuation maps for many coastal communities;
vulnerability assessments of some coastal populations in several states; and
new efforts to increase public awareness of the hazard and how to
respond,” the National Research Council report stated.
Still, if a near-term tsunami were to occur, people living in Oregon’s Cannon Beach and Seaside,
for example, would have just five to 10 minutes to move to higher ground.
“If the source were so close to shore that only minutes were available
before the tsunami reached the coast, the public would need to recognize
natural cues—mainly, ground shaking from the tsunami-triggering earthquake—and
know to evacuate even without official warnings,” the report stated.
The report also noted that organization between the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration’s West Coast and Alaska Tsunami warning centers has
not been optimized. Problems cited include different areas of responsibility,
management by different regional offices, the use of different technologies,
and separate support and organizational cultures.
“As a result, the public could receive conflicting warning messages
from the two centers,” according to the report, which also noted that
“the content of the warning messages is inconsistent with social science
findings on the composition and delivery of effective warning messages.”
Despite the many challenges, Sorensen said the events in Japan have
increased awareness and he expects that to spur further activities to increase
preparedness. For example, within a few years, people could receive text
messages on their personal mobile devices, Sorensen said.
“Tsunami Warning and Preparedness: An Assessment of the U.S. Tsunami and the
Nation’s Preparedness Efforts” can be downloaded at http://www.nap.edu.