Thursday, March 15, 2012

Danger in the Pacific - The Samoa Tsunami

With the help of my colleague, Alex Molina, I recently wrote about the realistic danger that tsunamis posed to the west coast of the United States.

I had vastly underestimated the damage a tsunami can do, and the last two days, after reading about the 8.3 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that followed, I also got to watch the Pacific Ocean's tsunami warning system in action.

In the case of Samoa, American Samoa, and Tonga, the earthquake's epicenter and aftershocks were in some cases less than 100 miles from the coastlines. This meant that the early warning system had little time to warn anyone. At this time, over 111 people are reported missing or dead from the three Pacific territories, and that count is expected to be considerably higher once emergency personnel make it to hard to access, outlying areas. In some cases, the waves came as far as a mile inland.

From reports from the wire services and people I've talked to in American Samoa, the only immediate warning for the tsunami most people received were the cell phone calls made by forward-thinking family. Common sense dictated that if an earthquake was both near enough and powerful enough to damage buildings, a tsunami was on its way. While many villages were literally swept completely into the Pacific Ocean, most people managed to get to high ground and escaped with their lives.

In the future, these three areas, particularly American Samoa, since it is under jurisdiction of FEMA and the US Government, will have to improve their Tsunami warning system up to the high standard set by the state of Oregon, which includes blue sirens all along the coast, and regularly scheduled tsunami drills in all the public schools.

Now for the good news

Otherwise, the new system in the Pacific seems to be working well. In all fairness, the tsunami that hit American Samoa was practically a point-blank shot and we did not have the benefit of the buoys to warn us of what was coming. Once the tsunami had time to move out and start hitting buoys, however, we had a clear picture of when the waves would hit Hawaii, Japan, the west coast of the United States, and other Pacific area at risk.

Warnings were made well in advance, and ships were able to seek deeper, safer waters, tsunami watches and warnings went into effect, and quickly out of effect, once the NOAA knew the waves had lost considerable power and size and represented little threat.

Even in far away, Venice Beach, California, lifeguards advised people to get out of the water in advance of the waves, and the tsunami showed up right on time. Apparently there wasn't much punch left, but I'm sure the state of California is relieved. Still, the unfortunate and low lying town of Crescent City, California was battered by a 1.5 foot peak over normal tides - a size comparable to the largest waves to hit Hawaii after the quake. State officials, knowing the town's vulnerability to tsunamis, were able to take the right precautions, however, and other than a scare to the local fish, no one was harmed and no property damage was reported.

Putting this into perspective

As we speak, a much deadlier weather event has left over 300 dead and thousands homeless, as Typhoon Ketsana has slammed into the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia. As much as 80% of Manila is underwater. A second quake hit Indonesia today, a 7.6 magnitude quake, scaring everyone up into the hills. Considering it was an 8.0 quake in the same area that prompted the 2004 Tsunami of infamy, I can't say they overreacted. If I felt a strong earthquake on any coastline, I would hightail it at least a mile into the hills as well.

The tsunami that resulted from it was less that a foot, smaller than what hit Hawaii or Crescent City, California from the Samoa earthquake. Officials were able to call off the warnings and people soon returned to their normal lives.

In the world of extreme weather events, we can only still guess at exactly what a hurricane will do or where it will go. This is true of many weather events, be they floods, tornadoes, even a wildfire. Earthquakes are the worst of all, and give no warning, but unless you are close to the epicenter, tsunamis are at least predictable in the Pacific, thanks to the work of the US and Japanese governments.

At this point in time, we have the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, headquartered in Hawaii, that watches all the tidal buoys in the Pacific Ocean at all times and gives us a very clear picture of what is going on out there. While they can't do much to warn of a tsunami when it first starts it's trek from the ocean floor, they certainly can track it within a few minutes of when it will land.

My heart goes out to the victims of Typhoon Ketsana and the recent Samoan tsunami, but I'm relieved that our relatively new typhoon tracking system has seen it's first real test.

Many scientists agree that at some point in the 21st century, we will see a quake and tsunami on the scale of the Cascadian Tsunami from 300 years ago. Without a working warning system in place, the results could be far worse than the Indonesian Tsunami of 2004.

Now that our tidal warning system has seen a full dress rehearsal, I feel much better about being prepared if the big one does indeed come.

For those who are interested, you can read my writeup from last week, Tsunamis in America: Can They Happen Here? Part 1.

Ryan W. Campbell is an assistant editor for the newly launched You can read more of his work there.

Ryan is from the Texas Gulf Coast and is a 16 year veteran of the United States Navy. He's a fan of motorcycles, extreme weather, camping, and fishing.

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