Expert Report

Tsunami Warning and Preparedness: An Assessment of the U.S. Tsunami Program and the Nation's Preparedness Efforts (2010)

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The nation's ability to detect and forecast tsunamis has improved since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but current efforts are still not sufficient to meet challenges posed by tsunamis generated near land, which leave little time for warning. This National Research Council report reviews progress made to strengthen the nation's tsunami warning and preparation systems, and identifies ways to further improve tsunami preparation efforts. Minimizing future losses of lives and property caused by tsunamis will require persistent progress across the broad spectrum of efforts reviewed in this report: risk assessment, public education, government coordination, detection and forecasting, and warning-center operations.

Key Messages

  • Current capabilities are still not sufficient to meet the challenge posed by a tsunami generated close to land. Near-field tsunamis can reach the coast just minutes after the triggering event, leaving little time to disseminate official warning messages. Tsunami education and preparation is necessary to ensure people know how to recognize natural cues, mainly ground shaking from the triggering earthquake.
  • Increased integration of public education and preparedness planning would raise the level of tsunami awareness and help this knowledge become ingrained into local culture and folk wisdom.
  • It is important to use professional emergency-management standards to prepare communities and to prioritize funding decisions based on tsunami risk assessments.
  • Regular, independent scientific review of the various elements of the tsunami warning system would be valuable in identifying and addressing research needs and in ensuring the effective implementation of new technologies and protocols.
  • Several elements of the tsunami program could be improved by adopting, monitoring, assessing, and rewarding use and evaluation of program, technical and organizational performance standards, and benchmarks.
  • The current organizational structure of the two Tsunami Warning Centers has not been optimized for coordinated, clear communication of tsunami warnings. The two centers have different areas of responsibilities; are managed by different regional offices; use different technology; have separate support and organizational cultures; and do not provide functional redundancy. A range of options for improving the organizational structure are discussed in the report, from harmonizing message content to changing the organizational structure, such as merging the two warning centers.
  • The nation's tsunami efforts have improved since the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. For example, expansion of the Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) sensor network has improved the ability to detect and forecast the size of tsunamis; the number and quality of hazard and evacuation maps has increased; and there have been new efforts to increase public awareness of the hazard and how to respond.
  • Tsunami Warning Center operations can be enhanced by co-locating with other seismic, warning, or mission-critical organizations. Co-location enhances information sharing, thus facilitating communication of lessons-learned and best practices and helping organizations develop a common approach to detection of, response to, and communication during an event.
  • Understanding the nation's tsunami risk is the first step towards building a comprehensive tsunami preparedness program. Risk assessments include evaluation of the hazards tsunamis pose, the populations and societal assets threatened, and the readiness of individuals and communities to evacuate.