The recent tragedies at sea — the deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean near Greece and the catastrophic implosion of the Titan submersible — are the stuff of nightmares. We instinctively comfort ourselves: I will never set foot in a submersible, my life will never be uprooted by war or pestilence.
We have little control, on the other hand, over natural tragedies.
Having grown up in Southern California, I’ve lived through major earthquakes, which is why I don’t fear them as much as I probably should. After all, there are things we can do to lessen the toll of earthquakes. We bolt our foundations; we keep survival kits handy. In recent years, my neighborhood has been abuzz with the sounds of earthquake retrofitting.
With wildfires, there are also steps we can take to protect ourselves and our property. With hurricanes, we can board up our windows and flee. With tornadoes, we can take refuge in storm basements.
But honestly, there may not be much you can do to protect yourself from a tsunami. You can run to higher ground, but that assumes you know what’s coming.
I hadn’t added tsunamis to the stuff of my nightmares until the deadly Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 that took out houses, trains, people, whole towns in 14 countries around the Indian Ocean. It brought home in a visceral way that sometimes, there is simply no protection against the wrath of nature.
That particular catastrophe began as a 9.1 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra. It killed 230,000 people before it was over, a number almost too high to contemplate.
Sonali Deraniyagala, a London-based economist who was vacationing with her family at a Sri Lankan resort, was caught unawares. In “Wave,” her bestselling 2013 memoir, she recounts the unbearable pain of losing her two young sons, husband and parents in the tsunami. She begins with a horrifying, surreal depiction of her confusion and struggle as she and her loved ones were washed away by waves as high as 30 feet. The terror has stayed with me.
This is why a few years ago, when I started noticing signs in my neighborhood — “Tsunami evacuation route” with an arrow pointing inland — I was shocked.
I live in a tsunami zone?
Well yes, as it turns out.
Emergency management professionals would like you to know that everyone along the edge of the West Coast is in a tsunami zone.
If you’ve spent any time near Los Angeles beaches in the last month or so, you may have seen billboards or bus shelter ads promoting tsunami awareness. The cartoon ads seem a bit silly: “Unprepared for a tsunami? Tsu-NOT-me!” (In Spanish, “Preparado para un tsunami? Tsúmate-A-mi!”) But the point, say the people who are paid to worry about these things, is to raise public awareness.
“We’re not trying to scare anybody,” said Crisanta Gonzalez, chief of the Los Angeles Department of Emergency Management’s community preparedness and engagement division. “We just want to start a conversation.”
Joseph Riser, spokesman for the department, counted the five-week, $250,000 federally funded campaign, which ended last week, as a success because there were 10 times the number of new registrations for the alerts compared with a “normal, blue sky month.”
For Los Angeles County in 2023, said Riser, the Federal Emergency Management Agency scores the risk of earthquakes at 100%, wildfires at 99% and tsunamis at 63%.
OK, so maybe tsunamis are not nearly as worrisome as the quakes and wildfires we know are inevitable, but 63% is not nothing. In the world of emergency management, said Gonzalez, “tsunamis are one of the better disasters.” I guess that’s reassuring?
According to the California Geological Survey, more than 150 tsunamis have hit our coast since 1800, though only a dozen or so have caused death or significant damage, most notably in 1964 when a 9.2 earthquake in Alaska generated 21-foot Pacific Ocean surges that crashed into Crescent City, killing 10 people and destroying most of the waterfront.
In March 2011, a tsunami generated by a 9.1 earthquake in Japan hit California 10 hours later. No one died, but the surging water caused $100 million in damage statewide.
“When there is an earthquake in one part of the world, like Japan, we start to pay attention in California,” Gonzalez told me. Signing up for alerts, and understanding what to do if you get one, makes sense. In Venice, residents are told to go east as fast as they can, and probably on foot, because roadways are likely to be jammed.
Yet, as much warning as they get, scientists are not always able to predict the speed and amplitude of a tsunami.
As recently as January 2022, a volcano obliterated most of an island in Tonga, generating a wave that traveled 5,000 miles across the Pacific and caused damage up and down the California coast. Live-aboards in the Berkeley Marina were evacuated. Way past the Golden Gate, near Mill Valley, the tsunami damaged boats and docks in relatively sheltered Richardson Bay. At Central California’s Oceano Dunes, sudden flooding caught campers unawares. And in Ventura, a Harbor Patrol boat capsized and docks were damaged from water-level rise and strong currents.
“Some people had to be rescued,” said Rick Wilson, head of the California Geological Survey’s tsunami program, in a recorded debriefing presented by the Earthquake Engineering Institute. “We always get surfers that try to surf the tsunami.”
Because the 2022 tsunami was spawned by a volcanic eruption, said Wilson, the National Tsunami Warning Center was thrown for a loop. “Their forecasts are based on earthquakes,” he said, so the predictions made by their computer models were not entirely reliable.
Oh and one other thing: Large meteors plunging into the ocean from outer space can also cause tsunamis.
As if we didn’t already have enough to worry about.