PALMER AND SEWARD, Alaska -- They're massive walls of water, moving toward the coastline at hundreds of miles per hour. We're talking about tsunamis.
They've pounded places like Chile, Japan, and Indonesia. Is the United States next?
A Wake-Up Call
On December 26, 2004, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake in Indonesia generated the world's deadliest tsunami in recorded history.
The quake took place around 7 a.m. By noon, the Indonesian tsunami killed more than 230,000 people as huge waves flooded coastlines around the Indian Ocean Basin.
It was a wake-up call for scientists.
"One of the things we learned from that is that all coastal areas, no matter what we consider the threat, should be protected by a tsunami warning system," Paul Whitmore, director of the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, told CBN News.
Scientists there now also monitor the East Coast, the Gulf Coast, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands -- all potential targets.
After the Indonesian tsunami, the U.S. stationed two scientists 24 hours a day at our warning centers, and the government invested heavily in tsunami detection equipment.
The technology to monitor tsunamis has improved dramatically since 2004. Thanks in part to new forecasting software and computer modeling techniques, accuracy and warning times have gotten better.
"When I first started here in 1986, our requirement was to get warnings out in 15 minutes," Whitmore explained. "Today we average less than three minutes, right at three minutes for our response capabilities for events that are near U.S. or Canadian areas."
One example of advanced technology that's improved warning speed and accuracy is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's DART tsunami detection buoy. DART stands for Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunami.
Before the 2004 tsunami, only six buoys floated in the ocean. Now, the United States has close to 40.
They can measure a tsunami wave as small as one centimeter in the open ocean. The information is sent back to a warning center, where scientists use computer technology to process it and then issue a forecast.
"Today we can do a much better job of saying, 'Your wave is going to arrive in two hours, 35 minutes approximately, and it's going to be three feet high,'" Whitmore said.
No matter how sophisticated the technology, if people ignore the warnings, lives will be lost. That's where education comes in.
As the NOAA Tsunami Program manager for the Alaska Region, it's Cindi Preller's job to get the word out.
"We spend a lot of time with the kids in the schools because we've learned that children are the best teachers, and we have several interviews from children that have been through disasters," Preller told CBN News. "And so we really work with the kids as much as we can because the kids will actually teach their parents."
Lessons include the following instructions:
- If you feel the ground shaking -- duck, cover, hold, and count for 20 seconds.
- If you're near the ocean, evacuate quickly.
"We have, in Japan's case in 2011, less than two minutes when the wave was actually arriving," said Preller. "I mean you have to know what to do immediately as soon as you feel the ground shaking."
Scientists say a good rule to follow is to head 100 feet above sea level or a mile inland. Don't wait for sirens or other warnings.
No coastal community is tsunami-proof, but population centers can become what's called "tsunami-ready." The community of Seward, Alaska, has set the example in making sure residents are prepared.
David Squires is a retired fire chief of Seward. On his watch, the city became an official "tsunami-ready" community by meeting communication and safety requirements established by NOAA's National Weather Service.
"It's not 'if;' it's 'when,'" Squires told CBN News. "It will happen again, and we got to be prepared for that. There's an earthquake every day in the state of Alaska -- some place."
Around town, you'll find sirens, evacuation information and signs marking the tsunami evacuation route and rendezvous area. Emergency managers in Seward take it very seriously.
"These are the guys that make the program work," Erv Petty, with the Alaska Division of Homeland Security, told CBN News. "Annually, we do a live code test every year to coincide with the anniversary of the great quake in '64."
On March 27, 1964, a large earthquake generated a deadly tsunami that destroyed the Seward coastline. Public Works Director W.C. Casey was 12 years old at the time and evacuated with his family.
"My dad actually afterwards said that as we were going through the boat harbor area and up the hill, he actually saw the tidal wave coming behind us," Casey shared with CBN News.
"Any coastal community, it's devastating -- the power and awesomeness of a tsunami," he said. "It's amazing what that power will do in regards to infrastructure, and people are like ants in a tsunami."
That's why scientists work to hone their tsunami forecasting skills and encourage coastal dwellers and visitors to get educated and heed the warnings.