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11 March 2005

Tsunami Warning System Must Include Communities, Education

Public education is critical component of disaster preparedness

By Cheryl Pellerin
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – A recent series of international meetings on establishing a tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean have focused initially on its technical aspects -- moored buoys, tide gauges and satellite communications that link them to monitoring centers.

But at the latest gathering in Paris March 3-8, Salvano Briceño, director of the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction secretariat, addressed the need for public outreach and education in creating an early warning system.

“Many people just think of a high-tech system with ocean sensors and a tsunami nerve center, but much more is needed,” Briceño said. “If the warnings do not get to the people at risk and into public education and preparedness programs, they will be ineffective.”

In the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Weather Service -- the primary source of weather data, forecasts and warnings for the United States and its territories -- has a program to help communities prepare for tsunamis and other weather events.

The TsunamiReady program (and the related StormReady program) is designed to educate local emergency management officials and their constituents and promote a well-designed tsunami emergency response plan for each community.

"While an expanding tsunami observation and communication network allows NOAA forecasters to monitor conditions and issue warnings, the public must know how to react to such warnings in order to complete an effective tsunami warning process," said National Weather Service Director David Johnson.

"The TsunamiReady program helps educate the public on the immediate actions necessary to stay safe,” he added.

TsunamiReady promotes tsunami hazard preparedness as collaboration among federal, state, and local emergency management agencies. The collaboration supports greater and more consistent tsunami awareness and mitigation efforts among communities at risk.

On March 7, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Weather Service recognized Lincoln City, Oregon, as a leader for becoming the first TsunamiReady community since the December 26 Indian Ocean tsunami tragedy.

"Preparation and advance warning are vital factors in tsunami readiness. Citizens in a seaside community, such as Lincoln City, which is in an area prone to earthquakes, must understand the importance of moving to high ground or inland immediately in case a tsunami occurs," said Jay Wilson, earthquake and tsunami program manager for Oregon State Emergency Management.

To be recognized as TsunamiReady, a U.S. community must take the following actions:

  • Establish a 24-hour warning point and emergency operations center.
  • Have more than one way to receive tsunami and severe weather warnings and forecasts to alert the public.
  • Create a system that monitors local weather conditions.
  • Promote the importance of public readiness through community seminars.
  • Develop a formal hazardous-weather plan that includes training severe-weather spotters and holding emergency exercises.

“A dissemination system is very important,” Johnson said. “It can be a siren, a NOAA weather radio report equivalent, the media, text messaging -- whatever you need to get the information out. Most importantly, you need a population that knows what to do with the information once they receive it.”

In the case of a local tsunami, dissemination is probably most important. “Radio towers and transmitters could be damaged by the earthquake itself or the first tsunami wave,” he said. “Utilities could be down and power could be out, so an educated public is probably your best bet.”

TsunamiReady and StormReady both use a grassroots approach to help communities develop plans to handle local severe weather, wave impacts and flooding threats, and help communities inform citizens of threats associated with each.

The programs are voluntary and give U.S. communities clear-cut advice from a partnership between the local NOAA Weather Service forecast office and state and local emergency managers.

“In the United States,” Johnson said, “we communicate always with emergency managers. It’s not NOAA, it’s not the National Hurricane Center telling you to evacuate, it is your local emergency manager who has had the benefit of a recommendation and advice from NOAA.”

StormReady began in 1999 with seven communities in Oklahoma. A city in the state of Washington became the first TsunamiReady community in 2001. There are now more than 860 StormReady communities in 47 states and 16 TsunamiReady communities along the west coast of the United States and in Hawaii and Alaska.

“I have 16 communities certified as tsunami ready,” Johnson said. “But I need every vulnerable coastal community to be tsunami ready -- I need thousands. And it’s a simple process.”

In any country, an effective tsunami warning system requires a number of elements, according to conclusions reached at a January 29 meeting in Phuket, Thailand, of participating governments.

A system must include risk assessment, hazard monitoring and detection, prediction and formulation of warning, dissemination and communication of warning messages, and knowledge and preparedness to act, according to the Ministerial Declaration on Regional Cooperation on Tsunami Early Warning Arrangements.

“If you buy a buoy, you just have a buoy,” Johnson said. “You need to be able to use the information from the buoy and actually save lives and protect property. It needs to be an end-to-end system.”

Information about the NOAA TsunamiReady program is available at http://www.stormready.noaa.gov/tsunamiready.htm