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Tsunami: History, tips for preparation, and what the future may bring us

Avatar for Samantha Biggers Samantha Biggers  |  Updated: August 1, 2022
Tsunami: History, tips for preparation, and what the future may bring us

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I was born within the Pacific Ring of Fire. Where I grew up in the North Cascades, I could see volcanos from basically every room in the house. Sauk Mountain you could sometimes see the indentation at the top. Mount Baker was nearby, and steam was sometimes seen coming out of it. Of course, there was Mount Rainier as well, towering over Seattle. Part of the reason my Dad thought it was a good idea to move back to his home state of North Carolina was that between floods and all the possible volcanic eruptions, it did not seem like a great place to be in the long term.

We would have left for other reasons regardless, but the Ring of Fire issue was definitely a consideration as well. The main reason my Dad had a bit of a complex about volcanoes is due to being woken up in 1980 by Mount St. Helens exploding 150 miles away. A volcano exploding is quite a thing to have brought you out of bed first thing in the morning for your job at the sawmill. This was when he and my mother were living near Forks, Washington and my brother was about 5. My father described the explosion as sounding like a champagne cork popping. This was followed by a second explosion that was louder and finally the third distinct noise was a grinding and roaring sound that he told me you would have to hear to really understand.

It was a pretty scary event for them, and there was a lot of ash in the air on the mainland of Washington State, but those on the peninsula didn’t get a lot of it due to the way the winds typically blow.

This video is amazing, but the quality is not that great because a lot of it was taken during the actual eruption of Mount St. Helens. I want to point out that the survivor has a moment where he changes his attitude that I think is an important lesson for any survival situation.

Earthquakes can lead to tsunamis, and seismic activity has been more frequent.

Earthquakes seem to be more common than ever. The November 30 earthquake in Anchorage Alaska surprised everyone with its magnitude. I have to say that I have never experienced an earthquake like that, but I have been under watch for one of the major after effects, the swift and devastating tsunami. This is one thing that is often passed off as just a warning, and while it often is not as bad as they say, the potential is great and it us better to be safe than sorry. While tsunamis are often the side effect of an earthquake, a volcanic eruption can also be a major contributor to a tsunami. This can be especially bad when a large chunk of rock or lava flow breaks off into the ocean. The more the mass, the bigger the tsunami.

If you live near the coast or own property near a coastline, a tsunami is something you should be prepared for. A tsunami can be a wave of water as high as a 100 feet and travel as fast as 500 miles per hour. It is like a wall of water moving at jet plane speeds!

The possibility of a massive tsunami is very real and has happened a lot in the past. For example, let’s look at the current situation in Hawaii and what led up to an amazing amount of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes in 2018.

The Hilina Slump

The earthquake of November 29th, 1975 on Kilauea, Hawaii rang in at 7.2 in magnitude. This is still on record as being the last major quake in the Halina Slump. Why is this a concern? Well, this slid the cliff on the southern coast of Hawaii 11 feet further into the ocean. This is an ongoing phenomenon, and the volcanic activity of 2018 has hastened the slipping of the large land mass towards the ocean floor.

Hawaii has seen over 70 slippage events in the past 20 million years, The question is how soon they will experience it again?  It is scary to think that the southern cliff of the island moved 10 cm towards the ocean in a single night in the year 2000.That may not seem like a lot, but it is an amazing amount of slippage. If the Hilina slump suddenly drops the southern cliff into the ocean, scientists predict a mega tsunami. If this happens Hawaii will see waves up to a 1,000 feet high. Hawaii will not be the only area of devastation. A tsunami of this size would cause waves 90-100 feet tall to hit the entire West Coast of the United States.

This is a volcanic earthquake landslide based tsunami system! That is a pretty scary thing to say!

Krakatoa 1883

The Krakatoa eruption of 1883 caused a major steam explosion. The main magma chamber hollowed core was below sea level. When the sea water finally found its way in, this caused a massive explosion. This expelled 12 cubic km of ash into the air that came back down into the ocean causing a gigantic tsunami. It blew dry the Sunda Strait for 30 minutes for 10 km around the island. The resulting tsunami waves are said to have been over 150 feet tall!

The 1883 eruption is believed to have caused at least 30,000 deaths.

The eruption caused the sky to turn a terrifying color in parts of Europe

An interesting side note is that the famous skyline in Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream” is based in part on the red sky that lasted for an extended period due to the volcanic explosion of Krakatoa.

“The Scream” by Edvard Munch, 1893

Think about how people that far back would have felt about experiencing a year without good light. It felt like the end of the world to them, hence the horrified expression of the man in the painting. The colors at sunset were also part of the inspiration as Munch said he and a friend were walking and the colors “shrieked.”

Think of Krakatoa as a huge volcanic eruption like Mount St Helens but in the ocean and capable of generating enormous and devastating waves of catastrophic power.

Krakatoa caused tidal shifts as far away as the English Channel!

Mount Anak Krakatau, also known as “Child of Krakatoa” 2019

The reason this volcano is known as “Child of Krakatoa” is because it is an island formed from the original Krakatoa in 1927.

This eruption came suddenly, and the resulting tsunami struck in the middle of the night with no warning at all. At least 222 people were confirmed dead and 843 injured.

Unfortunately, tsunamis can happen with no warning at all. If you are lucky enough to have any warning at all, then you should heed it without question! It is better to be cautious than wind up dead!

Preparing for a tsunami means being ready to go at a moment’s notice

Here are a few tips to get started.

First of all, just because you are 20 miles from the coastline, that doesn’t mean you will not be affected in some way.

Consider what happens when a lot of people have to evacuate. I will use the example of hurricanes on the coast of South Carolina because this is an example I am familiar with. When people have to evacuate for a hurricane, there are no hotels with available rooms within a 2-hour drive. The last time there was a major evacuation you could not get a hotel in Columbia, SC even though it is in the middle of the state.

Even where I am at near Asheville, a full 6-hour drive from the South Carolina coast, the availability of hotels and Airbnb rentals is affected. Part of this has to do with the fact that when there are hurricanes on the coast we often have fabulous weather in the mountains of North Carolina.

If you live within an hour of the coastline and there is a tsunami evacuation, the availability of supplies at grocery stores and big box stores like Wal-Mart may become low. You could see bare shelves when looking for some items. Restaurants and other popular businesses may be very crowded. It is a good idea for you to have some supplies on hand even if you are not within range of the wave!

Traffic could become awful for a while which means your commute to and from work or school could take much longer. Knowing alternative routes could be helpful!

Have a go bag for each person in your household.

Tsunamis are fast events, but the cleanup and damage can be long-lasting and mean that you cannot go back to your home for a significant amount of time if ever at all. A 72-hour pack will make you better prepared than the average person but being able to throw a week’s worth of supplies in your car is even better if you can.

The Carribean Disaster Emergency Management Agency has an excellent list available for those that want to make sure they are tsunami prepared.

Keep your gas tank topped off

I understand that plenty are living paycheck to paycheck during these times, but if you can keep at least 1/2 a tank of gas at all times, it is for the best. Fuel supplies and delivering can be very limited, and sometimes prices can go up significantly regardless of price gouging laws. You need to have enough fuel to get away from a situation. Remember that if you are evacuating with everyone else, you may have to do a lot of stop and go driving or you may be forced to idle in traffic for longer than you would expect.

When evacuating for a tsunami, getting to higher ground is a great idea. If you cannot get to higher ground, then you need to travel at least 2 miles inland.

You don’t have to get that far above sea level to be out of harm’s way, but it is better to get a little further away than you think you need to. The American Red Cross recommends traveling at least 2 miles inland to avoid a tsunami or traveling to an elevation that is at least 100 feet above sea level. It may be easier to find lodging and services the further you travel inland.

Get an emergency radio now if you don’t have one.

Keep an emergency radio and listen for updates.  If TV is an option that is great, but an emergency radio with NOAA weather reports can keep you on top of a situation so you can get your family out and stay safe.

Best Emergency Radios For Prepping & Survival

Make sure you have a good car kit for your climate. Tsunamis can happen when it is very cold or icy even. This is a disaster that can affect any coastline around the world.

Sometimes it can be harder to evacuate because of other seasonal weather factors. Evacuating for a tsunami when there is a lot of snow could be very difficult or even impossible if you don’t act very quickly when you hear there is a tsunami on the way. If it is just a tsunami watch and you are in an area that is isolated and hard to get out of fast, you may consider evacuating anyway just to be on the safe side.

Designing A Winter Emergency Kit For Your Car

Get Prepared With An Emergency Car Kit: The Ultimate Car Survival Kit

Pets and livestock

Pets should have proper carriers and a go bag of their own. Even if you allow your dog to ride in the seat of your vehicle without a carrier, you should have one with you. Shelters and other lodging, as well as other transportation options, may be easier to deal with if you have a way to contain your pet. You don’t want to be at an airport waiting because you don’t have a way to transport your dog on a plane for example. Cats definitely need carriers no questions asked! I know of very few cats that would do decent in a car without being confined!

Guide to Prepping for Your Pets

Best Pet Survival Kit Ideas & Products

Unfortunately, livestock is often out of luck when it comes to tsunamis. One thing that I have seen done is that in areas where floods are common, farmers have big mounds that allow cattle and other livestock to get above the flood waters. In a sudden emergency, you may have to choose to leave some animals behind or endanger your life or that of your family.

Plan your evacuation route now and make sure everyone in the family knows it. Have a real map and not just a GPS

A typical route out of an area may be very crowded or even blocked by debris from a storm or rising waters from other events.  A real road map of your area is invaluable in case GPS is not available. Know multiple routes and detours in case your first route is not clear or it appears too crowded.

Watch out for downed power lines and poles, especially those that have fallen in water over a road

Power lines can be deadly, and if in water they can be a hidden hazard, so you have to be very careful which leads us to the next important thing to remember.

Do not drive into water of unknown depth. Avoid driving through any water over a roadway if possible.

Ok, a few inches of water is one thing, and you might make the call to drive through, especially if you have a rugged vehicle, but you do need always to be aware of how fast water can rise. Also adjusting your speed is important as well. If you can find another way that doesn’t involve going through water, then take that route. If water is moving swiftly, that is a sign that you need to avoid it entirely.

Have a way to identify everyone in your family. While this is not the most important thing in your kit, being able to show who you are may help in the aftermath of a disaster.

Even just a copy of some documents are better than nothing. Some may choose to scan documents and keep a copy on a small USB drive or similar.

Make sure your emergency evacuation kit includes ID for everyone. Things like driver’s licenses, birth certificates, and social security cards are hard to replace. It is a good idea to have a copy of any insurance that you have on anything just in case. You can get extra copies of ID cards for a small fee. My home state allows you to order copies online. Even an old expired ID is better than nothing. You may want to just stick ID in each person’s “go bag”.

Make sure to have something with you for entertainment

You may have to spend some time at a shelter or somewhere that entertainment options are going to be quite limited. Having something on hand also helps out kids and others in your family that may be a bit scared during an evacuation. Small comforts and reminders of normality can help everyone keep calm and a more positive attitude.

Normality During An Extended Emergency: An overview of what to put back and how to keep up morale

Here is a good post on helping kids in stressful times.

Helping Children and Youth Manage Stress

Have some extra cash on hand

I know all too well what can happen if communications fail due to a disaster.  A few hundred dollars in cash can go a long way if you need it to and make a big difference when stores are unable to process credit and debit cards. Some places will take checks during an emergency, but they certainly do not have to. When my husband and I lived in Alaska and the stores stopped taking cards, and the banks could not access accounts, stores would take local checks, and the banks would give you no more than $50 in cash. So if you don’t keep cash, checks are better than nothing, but there are no guarantees.

Tsunami Rule #1: GET OUT ASAP! Do not hesitate if you have advance warning. Possessions are not worth the risk. Throw your go bags, family members, and pets in the car and go!

Have you experienced a tsunami or volcanic eruption? Do you have any tips for evacuation and staying calm?

Samantha Biggers can be reached at [email protected]

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4 Responses to “Tsunami: History, tips for preparation, and what the future may bring us”

  1. Dear Samantha Biggers

    In reply to my previous remarks, I live in Australia, and we have our own set of problems to contend with.
    Mostly Bushfires, droughts, floods, the occasional riot. No Tsunamies though, but that will change.

  2. Dear Samantha

    I have just finished explaining to Mum about Volcanoes, Krakatoa and Anak.
    She laughed said it would never happen. Told her about the ring of fire, and she said that was Indonesia’s problem not ours. I have a lot of worldly knowledge.
    To Mum and dad it is all sunshine and light, not a cloud in the sky, so why should they worry, (Sigh)
    I was woken up in late 2016, and have been preparing ever since.
    I have not told anyone what I have: opsec (operational Security) I believe is the word.
    My brothers and older sister are like my parents. Why worry, there is not a cloud in the sky, besides if trouble comes the government will protect us will be their thinking.

  3. Good advice, but I would say that the section about keeping gas in your car has nothing to do with living paycheck to paycheck. It does not cost any more to keep the fuel tank full than it does to keep it empty. This is a state of mind and a determination of will, not a financial matter. Let me repeat, it does not cost any more to keep your fuel tank full than it does to keep it empty.

    • You are right Roger. It doesn’t cost more because you are going to burn that gas regardless but if you are living paycheck to paycheck and you are a few days off from getting paid or have an unexpected expense come up, it can be tempting to hold off on refilling if you think you have enough to get through until pay day. I am not saying it is a good habit to be in but people get busy and don’t always plan things out and even if they do, if something comes up and they are short, cuts get made and that may include not topping off that tank soon enough. Thanks for reading!

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