Tsunami warning prompts action across the Pacific

Tsunami warnings were called across the Pacific following the massive 8.8 magnitude earthquake that hit off the coast of central Chile on Saturday 27 February.

Tsunami warnings were called across the Pacific following the massive 8.8 magnitude earthquake that hit off the coast of central Chile on Saturday 27 February. Coastal towns and islands off the coast of Chile experienced waves that washed away houses, destroyed boats and sent residents fleeing into the hills. It is not yet known how many people died as a result of the tsunami, but it is expected to be in the hundreds.

In Hawaii, due to the magnitude of the Chilean earthquake, all affected agencies were alerted to the potential for a destructive tsunami soon after the quake occurred. The State Civil Defence and emergency operations centers for each county were activated and all agencies followed protocols to prepare for the arrival of the tsunami. Fortunately, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center was able to accurately predict arrival time; public safety agencies; emergency management, police, fire, ems, and lifeguards, were able to implement warning, evacuation and pre-event protocols to prepare for the tsunami.

Ralph Goto who is Director of the Honolulu Ocean Safety & Lifeguard Services Division reported that “evacuation of inundation areas, including Waikiki Beach, occurred without incident. Cooperation from the public, news media, visitor industry, and state, local and federal agencies was very good and reflective of the pre-planning efforts of all involved. We were fortunate that a destructive wave did not reach our islands, and will continue to work statewide to improve planning and response strategies to natural disasters.

Authorities in Japan evacuated 245,000 households amid an advisory that waves of more than 3m could batter Japan’s Pacific coast after the earthquake. A tsunami of little more than 10cm was reported in the small island of Minamitori, 1950 km south of Tokyo, but the Japan Meteorological Agency warned that waves of up to three metres could hit the northern areas of Aomori, Iwate and Miyagi.

Japan has been impacted by several tsunamis throughout its history, including one in 1993 that killed 261 people that was triggered by an earthquake only 30km off the coast of Hokkaido. Today Japanese authorities made good use of the 15 hours warning given by the warning system, taking no chances and ordering many evacuations.

In Australia, a nation with a strong culture of water safety but little experience with tsunamis, authorities and lifesavers struggled to get the public to take warnings seriously. The expected tsunami arrival time coincided with the start of Surf Life Saving patrols. Lifesavers closed beaches along the eastern coast of Australia and focused their energy on keeping the public out of the water and off the beach. Fortunately only small disturbances were recorded, but authorities are questioning whether its tsunami warning system would have passed the test, had the impact been greater.

ILS Lifesaving Commission and Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA) Director of Lifesaving Peter George AM said.Yesterday, Surf Life Saving Australia acted on the advice of the relevant State Emergency Authority to close beaches along the eastern seaboard of Australia during the warning periods, and during times of increased risk. All junior lifesaving activities were cancelled for the day and surveillance patrols were provided to warn the public and to provide updated information. Unfortunately many people chose to attend the beaches rather than to stay away. A review of the effectiveness of the alert will now be conducted.

Tsunami warning and evacuation systems have been the focus of much attention since the Asian tsunami in 2004 killed over 230,000 people across South East Asia. It also prompted the International Life Saving Federation to form an Aquatic Disaster Committee, and to make Disaster a key theme of its next World Conference on Drowning Prevention to be held in Danang, Vietnam in 2011.

George Karagiannis, ILS Aquatic Disaster Chair, said “while tsunamis themselves are not preventable, more lives could be saved if populations were given access to cost-effective and sustainable survival swimming, lifesaving, and water safety programs which address the specific needs of their environment.

The ILS Position Statement on Aquatic Disaster makes a call for further efforts in building community resilience and adaptability through lifesaving skills and systems, which can save lives in everyday life, as well as during catastrophic events, such as a tsunami.

By equipping populations with the skills to save their lives, such as making people aware of what changes in water patterns mean, as well as basic survival swimming skills to be used if they are unable to outrun the oncoming wave, they have a greater chance of surviving the immersion.

ILS will continue to monitor the situation, and offers its sincere condolences to the people of Chile who are suffering from one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history. The death toll has passed 700 and many millions more have been affected by the quake that comes soon after one that continues to cause great suffering in Haiti.