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Nine U.S. towns ready for Atlantic tsunami

Emergency managers in Liberty County, Ga.,  soon plan to post warning signs depicting a stick man running uphill from a monstrous wave and declaring the surrounding area a “Tsunami Hazard Zone.”
Tom Burris
Tom Burris, emergency management director for Liberty County, walks past a tsunami warning sign in his Hinesville, Ga. office on Jan. 30. The warning sign was designed and distributed by the National Weather Service. The county became the ninth on the East coast to be certified by the Weather Service as ready to respond to tsunamis.Stephen Morton / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Standing outside his home 100 yards from the Atlantic Ocean, John T. Woods III has a hard time imagining it — a towering tidal wave one day crashing over the dock where a lone fisherman recently cast his line.

Yet emergency managers here in Liberty County soon plan to post a warning sign near Woods’ house depicting a stick man running uphill from a monstrous wave and declaring the surrounding area a “Tsunami Hazard Zone.”

The closest thing that Woods, a lifelong Georgia coast resident, has been to a natural disaster was Hurricane David, a Category 2 storm that caused no devastation in 1979. Tsunamis, he says, “have never been a factor.”

“I really think it’s a waste of time,” said the 47-year-old shrimper. “But you never know.”

Closer scrutiny
While tsunamis are primarily considered a threat on the Pacific Coast, emergency officials are paying closer attention to the potential for killer waves on the Atlantic Coast since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people in 11 countries.

The government’s West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center now watches out for the East Coast as well. A tsunami-detection buoy monitors for sudden changes in sea level 320 miles off Charleston, S.C.

And a few local governments along the East Coast, including Liberty County, have enrolled in a National Weather Service program to prepare for the remote chance of killer waves spawning in the Atlantic.

“There is a possibility, though a very slight possibility,” said Tom Burris, emergency management director for Liberty County. “Just like a hurricane, you can talk until you’re blue in the face and people will say it ain’t going to happen here.”

On Jan. 9, Liberty County became only the ninth community on the eastern seaboard to be certified by the Weather Service as officially ready to respond to tsunamis, tidal waves caused by earthquakes or rock slides under the sea.

Also certified are Indian Harbour Beach, Fla.; Onslow County, N.C.; Norfolk, Va.; and five South Carolina communities — Charleston County, Horry County, Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach.

“After the tsunami hit Indonesia in 2004, it really became important that, jeez, it may be a rare event, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prepared for it,” said Paul Yura, warning coordination meteorologist for the Weather Service in Charleston, S.C.

The budget for the TsunamiReady program was $750,000 in fiscal 2006. Rather than build seawalls or fortify existing infrastructure, it aims to set standards to alert and evacuate people during tsunami warnings.

Emergency managers receive no special training other than a briefing from the Weather Service on tsunami threats. The most intensive part is mapping which portions of a city or county are vulnerable to flooding. Participation is voluntary.

‘An unsettling time’
Not everybody took it seriously when Indian Harbour Beach, a city of 8,700 located 70 miles southeast of Orlando, was named the first tsunami-ready city on the Atlantic in 2005. Officials there spent about $500 on extra megaphones to use for evacuations and signs for the beach with flashing warning lights.

Pranksters would steal the signs almost as soon as they were installed, likely coveting them as novelty souvenirs, City Manager Jackie Burns said.

“A couple of the other cities laughed at us,” Burns said. “But hey, whatever you can do to protect your people. And I think people want to feel protected since Sept. 11. It’s just an unsettling time for people.”

According to the National Geophysical Data Center, seven tsunamis have been recorded in Atlantic and Gulf Coast states since 1886 — when large waves followed earthquakes that struck Charleston, S.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., on the same day. No Americans died in the seven tsunamis, and most produced waves so small they could barely be detected.

Geologists say an Atlantic Coast tsunami could be triggered by the breaking of old fault lines offshore or by inland earthquakes causing an undersea landslide of sediments piled where the shallow continental shelf drops sharply into the ocean.

What isn’t known is how often such events might produce powerful tsunamis in the Atlantic — our recorded history doesn’t reach back far enough, said Martitia Tuttle, a geologist in Georgetown, Maine, who studies underground deposits of sand, pebbles and other deposits swept ashore by tsunamis hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

“You want to get an idea of recurrence,” Tuttle said. “If these large events occur, let’s say, every 2,000 years, you have to go back more than that to get an idea of the repeat time.”