Until December 2004, most of us thought of tsunamis as the makings of a good disaster movie, if we knew what "tsunami" meant at all. But with the awful devastation of 2004, we realized how much damage a tsunami can do.
What a Tsunami Is
Tsunamis are not large tropical storms caused by high winds. They are the result of undersea geological events like volcanoes, landslides, or earthquakes that occur with massive tectonic displacements. Earthquakes that reach 6.5 or above (Richter scale) can produce devastating waves that move at up to 300 miles per hour, reach heights of 100 feet, and last from several minutes to several hours from first wave to last surge.
In the open sea, the tsunami may not be noticeable, but when they enter shallower waters, the begins to "pile up" on itself, creating a massive wave that can destroy tall buildings and even travel inland for miles with great power.
Where Tsunamis Strike
Coastal areas in the Pacific Ocean basin are the most frequent targets of tsunamis, reflecting the greater vulnerability related to the famous "Ring of Fire" where tectonic plates meet to form a great circle on the sea floor. Japan has experienced many tsunamis. In fact, tsunami is a Japanese word. They've also hit Alaska and Hawaii in the Pacific Basin and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in the Atlantic basin.
The Indian Ocean area has experienced many tsunamis as well, the 2004 tsunami taking more than 250,000 lives and destroying billions of dollars in property.
Preparing for a Tsunami Emergency
If you are in the water and feel a strong earthquake, leave the water immediately, getting as far from the beach as you can. Try to go to high ground, or go inland as far as possible if the ground near you is flat.
If you can see the incoming wave, you can't escape it. You simply don't have time. The best thing to do in that case is to get as high as you can as quickly as you can.
If you sense a strong earthquake and you are not at the beach, tune your radio to a local station that broadcasts during emergencies. They will notify the public in case a tsunami watch or warning has been issued, and they will let you know where emergency relief centers are.
At this point, you should know where your family members are. Make sure everyone knows about the alert. You should have an agreed-upon meeting place in case you're not all in the same place when the emergency is announced. Your meeting location should be as far from the shore as possible but not so far that people can't get to it in time.
Be sure to prepare for family members with special needs. If your family includes elderly, ill, or small children, be prepared to have help for them or try to evacuate them early. You may also want to prepare to evacuate your pets as well, bringing emergency food and water for them.
You should have prepared emergency supplies in your home. Bring them with you when you evacuate. At least take fresh water, some food, and extra clothing. Most important, have a first aid kit in case of injuries.
If you have time, you might try to secure your house, but not at the risk of your own life. There is little you can do to protect your possessions from an incoming tsunami, so focus on saving lives first.
Tsunami Watch or Tsunami Warning
The two terms have important different meanings. When authorities issue a tsunami watch, it means that a tsunami is possible, but no one has reported seeing one or a sighting hasn't been verified yet. A watch may include estimates for when and where a tsunami may strike.
When they issue a tsunami warning, it means that a tsunami has been reported and confirmed. By the time they issue the warning, the tsunami could be close. The warning will also let you know where to expect it to strike and when.
During the Wave
If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself at the mercy of an incoming tsunami, climb onto a rooftop or the highest point you can reach. The more stable the building, the safer the support will be. But get as high as you can no matter what. Hold on as tight as you can to any stable and heavy object available. If you must, climb a tree.
If you've already been overtaken by the water, grab something floating that's large enough to support you and hold onto it until you can find stable ground or get help. Grab anything that seems firm and try to get out of the water. The current will be strong, and you could be hurt by debris in the water. If you can get any part of your body out of the water, do so.
You have to accept that tsunamis, like most natural disasters, are uncontrollable. You will have the earthquake warning to give you time to escape.
Keep your head. Remain calm. The better prepared you are, the better your chances of surviving.
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