Report: At-Risk States Unprepared for Tsunami

Several areas of the United States are at risk from a tsunami, but a new government report finds that the states most at risk are unprepared for a disaster of the magnitude of the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands. Rob Manning of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.

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Next on DAY TO DAY, tidal waves. A new federal report says Pacific coast states are still unprepared, despite the huge coverage of the Christmas tsunami a year and a half ago; territories in the Caribbean are also vulnerable. From Oregon Public Broadcasting, Rob Manning prepared this report.

(Soundbite of warning siren)

ROB MANNING reporting:

For millions of residents along the Pacific coast, this sound ought to mean a tsunami is coming. Tsunamis have struck North America before, including one 300 years ago that scientists say created 30-foot waves on the Pacific coast. But according to Anu Mittal, who wrote the GAO report on tsunami preparedness, there's a danger, people are going to start equating the coastal sirens with something else.

Ms. ANU MITTAL (Director, National Resources and Environment): The effectiveness of these warnings is hampered because of a number of reasons. One is that they have a lot of false alarms. And false alarms can lead to very costly and unnecessary evacuations; or people will start ignoring them in the future because they never result in a tsunami.

MANNING: The government report found that of the 16 tsunami warnings issued in the last 23 years, all turned out to be false alarms. That includes a warning issued last June, which led to evacuations up and down the Pacific coast. That false alarm highlighted other holes in the tsunami warning system, which have appeared again in this week's GAO report.

For one, 911 phone lines were jammed all along the west coast with people wanting to know where to go. Tom Manning is the emergency manager for one county on Oregon's central coast. He agrees with the report's emphasis on education.

Mr. TOM MANNING (Emergency Manager, Tillamook County, Oregon): It should be a situation where children are taught at a young and early age and understand the risk. And I think this should happen nationwide, because if you visit - if you're visiting from Nebraska and, you know, you don't know what the signs of a tsunami are, especially a distant tsunami, it could be very dangerous.

MANNING: But even if you know enough to head to high ground, getting there can be hard without a good map. Oregon has mapped only nine of the 17 major cities on the coast and none of the sparsely inhabited areas between cities. Alaska is even farther behind, with maps of only five towns. And many local highways don't have the capacity to take on a crush of traffic. That's a big concern of Washington Governor Chris Gregoire.

Governor CHRISTINE GREGOIRE (Democrat, Washington): It's one thing to warn people a tsunami's coming. It's another thing to have them have the capacity to evacuate in a timely way.

MANNING: A west coast tsunami could be accompanied by a major earthquake, which officials fear would knock out bridges and roads to coastal communities, making it even harder to move out of the way of a giant wave. Oregon State Tsunami Coordinator Jay Wilson says the aftermath of a tsunami and earthquake on the Pacific coast may end up looking more like the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina with its millions of homeless.

Mr. JAY WILSON (Earthquake and Tsunami Programs Coordinator, Oregon): There's high portions of those communities that aren't going to have a home to come back to, and they're therefore going to have to be sheltered. And so I think that county, those communities, for example, really need to assess the adequacy of their mass care and sheltering emergency capabilities.

MANNING: The GAO report did push for a stronger role from FEMA, as well as better coordination with local and state authorities, so that at-risk areas from Puerto Rico to Alaska can be better prepared for a tsunami before the warning sirens go off. For NPR News, I'm Rob Manning in Portland, Oregon.

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GAO Report on Tsunamis: Is the U.S. Prepared?

A TsunamiReady sign. i i

Communities meeting standards for tsunami preparedness are certified "TsunamiReady" by the National Weather Service. GAO/NOAA hide caption

itoggle caption GAO/NOAA
A TsunamiReady sign.

Communities meeting standards for tsunami preparedness are certified "TsunamiReady" by the National Weather Service.

GAO/NOAA
The process of generating a tsunami. i i

A shift in tectonic plates in underwater subduction zones results in a tsunami-generating earthquake. GAO/NOAA hide caption

itoggle caption GAO/NOAA
The process of generating a tsunami.

A shift in tectonic plates in underwater subduction zones results in a tsunami-generating earthquake.

GAO/NOAA
Tsunami hazard areas. i i

Subduction zones, underwater trenches created when one tectonic plate moves underneath another, place coastal regions in the Pacific and Caribbean at high risk for destructive tsunamis. GAO/NOAA hide caption

itoggle caption GAO/NOAA
Tsunami hazard areas.

Subduction zones, underwater trenches created when one tectonic plate moves underneath another, place coastal regions in the Pacific and Caribbean at high risk for destructive tsunamis.

GAO/NOAA

The Government Accountability Office identifies states and territories most susceptible to tsunamis and evaluated federal, state and local preparedness in a new report.

The GAO concluded that much needs to be done before coastal communities are equipped to deal with a potential disaster. Questions concerning U.S. readiness for a tsunami were raised after the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people.

In 2005, Congress gave $17 million to fund detection and warning efforts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program.

Report Highlights

U.S. Coastal Areas With Greatest Tsunami Risk

NOAA determined the Pacific coast states of Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington have the greatest tsunami risk. Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands also have the greatest tsunami hazard. The East and Gulf coasts are relatively low-hazard areas.

Limited information is available about potential impacts to high-hazard areas. Standardized software to estimate tsunami damage does not exist, and many states are slow to create costly inundation maps to estimate damage.

Effectiveness of Tsunami Warning System

NOAA's National Weather Service operates two tsunami warning centers that submit tsunami warning messages to NWS forecast offices and state emergency management centers. From there, the NWS offices transmit a warning over the Emergency Alert System and NOAA Weather Radio, which broadcasts continuous weather information.

Federal warning centers can quickly detect potential tsunamis and issue warnings; however, only a limited number of areas are set-up to receive those warnings.

Since 1982, 16 tsunami warnings have been issued, but none was followed by a destructive tsunami on U.S. shores. Emergency Management officials fear people will not take future warnings seriously.

Community Preparedness

Planning in at-risk communities varies. All locations have multiple warning mechanisms in place, but potential problems, such as telephone-line disruption, could hinder a necessary warning.

Educational efforts are not consistently implemented. Only two states include tsunami curricula in schools, but many coastal communities post tsunami evacuation signs and distribute tsunami evacuation maps. Officials attributed lack of tsunami education to more pressing disasters, such as wildfires, and to limited funding.

Few communities participate in NOAA's voluntary preparedness program, which educates citizens on tsunami hazards, develops community tsunami hazard plans and establishes local warning systems, because tsunami threats are perceived to be low.

NOAA's Long-Range Plans

The GAO determined NOAA needs to establish long-term goals for its tsunami preparedeness program and to assess whether its efforts are successful.

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