Living in a coastal, earthquake/tsunami area - I have questions

We just watched a fascinating show on earthquakes/tsunamis along the Pacific coast in North America, and it has me wondering how people live in areas like that. I have some questions for people who live in an area that is considered an earthquake/tsunami hazard area - do you have earthquake/tsunami plans? Do you have warning sirens in your community? Do you know what they mean? Do you know how long you have to get to safety, and do you know where relative safety is from the tsunami that follows an earthquake anywhere along the coast in the world? Is fear of earthquakes and tsunamis a real fear for you? Are you aware of the risk but you don’t think about it? Do you know if you live in a tsunami hazard zone?

Please don’t feel like you need to answer every specific question - I’m generally curious about how people live in an area that has a real risk of a serious geological event affecting their lives.

I grew up in Northern California, where earthquakes are a very real risk. Tsunamis are not something people consider as much. At any rate, I grew up most of my life about 20 miles inland. Even when I lived in coastal cities, I don’t remember anyone talking about tsunamis. (I was born in San Francisco and lived there until I was eight, when my family moved to the burbs, where my parents still live. Then I went to college in another coastal town.)

Yes, my family had plans. We had water and supplies of canned goods in the garage, and a meeting point arranged in case of a serious earthquake. We also had earthquake drills in school and got lots of training on what to do in an earthquake from kindergarten on.

I am actually terrified of tsunamis. I have had multiple nightmares about seeing one approach.

Earthquakes, not so much. Maybe because I have actually experienced several earthquakes and they are usually not a very big deal.

I guess. You can’t do anything about earthquakes except to be prepared. I always felt pretty safe in California, because there are very strong building codes and people take them very seriously. I actually felt a lot more scared when I lived in Bulgaria, where earthquakes aren’t as common, but buildings tend to be built by unlicensed, untrained people. There was an earthquake in the 1960s that leveled Skopje, Macedonia (to my west) and one in 1999 that caused major damage and loss of life in Istanbul (to my east). My house was a total shithole and would probably not have stood up to much shaking.

The tsunamis weren’t on the radar (no pun intended)? Do you suppose they still aren’t?

They aren’t significant risks in California, Cat Whisperer. We don’t get the same type of tectonic plate motion that displaces water in such a way as to typically cause tsunamis. *Typically–*I suppose it can happen, but it’s not considered. We are on a transform plate boundary; the North American and Pacific tectonic plates are sliding past each other, rather than crashing into (convergent, like what’s forming the Himalayas) or pulling apart (divergent, like what’s ripping Iceland in half–well, really increasing its size as the gap is filled with magma).

We have earthquake plans here. Hubby was in the epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake (an hour closer to it than San Francisco), so we kind of have to. Basically, we have a lot of canned food, large heavy items (like the big screen TV) are bolted to the wall, we keep the 50 gallon tank of water in the horse trailer refreshed, and we both will head home from work by however means we can once we can. Hubby, whose work is close to Boy 1.0’s school, would pick our older son up. (Youngest son has in-home care, so that’s not an issue.) It’s important to have those plans in place as even in the mild earthquakes, the phone lines (both cell and land) become useless from sheer call volume. We have to assume we won’t be able to talk to each other.

And earthquakes scare the shit out of me. They didn’t at first; the cute little 4.0s are novel little things. But, the Northridge Quake changed everything. I lived an hour from the epicenter, and it still shook like mad. Hubby, so close to the 7.1 Loma Prieta, still has visceral reactions to the sound of a house settling–that initial creak that was followed by the sound of everything falling and crashing around him, and being convinced he was going to die, has stayed with him for 21 years. We went years without earthquakes, then we had 3 in less than a year. All of them were small little throat-clearers, but they certainly got your attention and reminded you,“Oh, shit…we live on a plate boundary.”

But, in the midwest (where I grew up) it was all tornadoes and ice storms that we feared, and those came every year. So…there’s something everywhere.

I live in CA, and my WAG about California is that most people here are not prepared at all and don’t give the risk a moment’s thought.

I grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Do you have earthquake/tsunami plans? Do you have warning sirens in your community? Do you know what they mean?
My mom had a stockpile of nonperishable food, batteries, toilet paper, flashlights, battery-powered radios, first aid kits, etc., but my family never had plans in the “go here, contact this person” sense. I never heard of anyone else having plans beyond calling certain people or meeting up at someone’s house and listening to the radio.

Hawaii has a statewide civil defense tsunami warning system, which sounds a siren in the event of a possible tsunami. Everyone knows what the siren sounds like, because it is tested at 11:45am on the first Monday of every month. Simultaneously, all radio stations in the state air a prerecorded message explaining what the sirens are, and how in the event of an actual emergency, you should turn on the radio and listen for any urgent bulletins.

During a tsunami threat, when the sirens go off, everything comes to a stop. Going to school and work seems optional-- some people show up, some don’t, and anyone who doesn’t show up is basically excused due to the circumstances. Even if you do go, it’s never really business as usual, as everyone’s thinking about the tsunami threat.

Do you know how long you have to get to safety, and do you know where relative safety is from the tsunami that follows an earthquake anywhere along the coast in the world?
We’re an island state, and major tsunamis are a threat because there’s not much you can do. Even if it hits at an ideal time for evacuation (unlike, say, the April Fools’ Day one that hit in 1941 at 5am…) you can only flee so far. You’re told to head for higher ground, but if you don’t evacuate right away, or if you’re far from transportation, you’re kind of screwed. A major tsunami has not hit our state in a very long time, so I don’t think most people would even know where to flee to. Toward the mountains, toward the middle of the islands are probably the best bet, but I can’t recall ever being told that.

I used to work in an oral history office as a transcriber, and I typed out interviews of survivors of the 1941 tsunami. Some recalled seeing the receding ocean (a clear warning sign that a tsunami is coming) and climbing up coconut trees because there was other choice.

Is fear of earthquakes and tsunamis a real fear for you? Are you aware of the risk but you don’t think about it?
It’s one that I only worry about because it can hit without warning. Hurricanes, at leat, have the decency to have a season, and you don’t really think about them for half a year. And even when it’s the season for them, you can see them developing and you often have a couple days’ warning. Earthquakes, though, can happen at any time and anywhere.

But even then, it’s not something I ever lost sleep over because they happen so infrequently. We had no more than six tsunami warnings and hurricanes combined in the 25 years I lived there. That’s not a lot.

I never really feared tsunamis growing up because I figured we were fairly safe. We lived near the middle of the island, and I figured no matter which way the wave came, we had either a buffer of a few dozen miles, or other islands would get the worst of it. We lived within sight of Pearl Harbor, but a tsunami from that direction seemed unlikely.

I agree. I lived in the Bay Area until I was 33, and my parents have lived in California all their lives. We’ve never done squat to prepare for earthquakes - even after going through the '89 quake. I don’t recall knowing anyone who was prepared, but I suppose some of my friends may have been ready and I didn’t know about it. In my experience it wasn’t something people talked about, because we weren’t worried about it.

In 2005 I worked in reconstruction on an island in Thailand that had been devastated by the tsunami. I’m going back there in 2 weeks’ time.

There are now evacuation routes, sirens and drills. I helped with a project to put big emergency supply boxes at the muster points on the hilltops - waterproof freezer-size boxes full of medical supplies, drinking water, high-energy cookies, etc.

There are many false positives, of which I have experienced two*, which are terrifying. They have a particularly unpleasant effect on the survivors, who get a PTSD reaction. Every time there’s a false alarm, there is a stampede through the village to get to the hills, with many injuries resulting. A lot of people are now on edge about the sea, all the time.

While I was living there I suffered from nightmares, almost every night, about another tsunami. My bungalow was at beach level and at times I did consider moving to a place up the hill, just so I could sleep.

*One was actually a tsunami caused by a quake in the Andaman Islands, but was only 1 metre high so didn’t do any damage.

Correction: three false alarms. And the one with the actual tsunami was caused in the Nicobar Islands. Here’s my account of the incident:

There are some very significant tsunami risks in CA. But they’re from potential undersea landslides, not from the classic strike-slip San Andreas action you’re describing.

See and

Mount Rainier here in Washington State is one of the few volcanoes in the world that are known to have a high risk of destroying the surrounding countryside with mud flows (called lahars). There are several cities in Pierce County that are built on the remnants of the last lahar, dating from about 500 years ago, and sirens have been set up to warn the population if one of these flows are descending on them (at about 60 mph, bu the way). And roads that can be used as escape routes are clearly marked as well.

As mention above, the last major lahar was about 500 years ago, and considering the fact that they typically occur every 500 - 1,000 years, this warning system is not considered just another government boondoggle.

It is hard to truly prepair for. It is something that you have to pick up the pieces after. Find out what you have and what you can do.

My wife works in a school. I maintain a high rise building. If a major quake hits we may both be stuck at work. She will not be able to leave until after the last kid is picked up. Depending on the condition of the building I may not be able to leave. And if we can leave will the roads be passable or do we have to walk home?

Our house every tall thing has straps holding it to the wall. In an earthquake the first thing that will go will be the plans.

Yeah, that’s what I understood from the show we watched - they were talking about the Cascadia subduction zone being the troublemaker (plus any tsunamis resulting from heavy seismic activity anywhere around the “ring of fire”). Tsunami deaths on the west coast on North America from BC to California are not unheard of - the 1964 9.2 earthquake in Alaska killed 23 people in Prince William Sound and did damage as far away as Hawaii and Japan.

I can understand people not letting tsunami risk (or earthquake risk) run their lives, but it sounds like the tsunami risk on the west coast is almost completely disregarded.

ETA: There is some speculation that Cascadia quakes will affect the San Andreas fault.

I grew up in Alaska and experienced the 9.2 in 1964. My wife lived in SFO for 25 years and knows what quakes can do. We lived as a couple in Alaska for the last 11 years before moving to Oregon. During our time there, we had fresh water, first aid implements, flashlights, radio, blankets, food, etc. in a relatively protected place. We also identified the closest safest places to get to when things started shaking (mainly the bathrooms).

I live in South Carolina, where most people don’t realize we’re smack on a fault line. There was a major earthquake in Charleston in the nineteenth century and if it happened again the damage would be absolutely shocking - there’s a lot of fill, a lot of places you can only get to by bridge, and there’d be a lot of damage. They recently made a lot of updates to the Lake Murray Dam for earthquake readiness, which is a good thing as if the dam did fail catastrophically I’ve read that the Gervais Street bridge would be fifty feet underwater in a few minutes. Which would be, you know, a problem.

Really, though, even if you know about it it’s not a big deal - you already keep hurricane supplies, so why worry extra about earthquakes? It’s not like there’s going to be any warning if it hits, and there’s not going to be anything you can do except run the hell away from the damned dam, I guess. Hurricanes are a much bigger deal here.

I don’t think Californians spend a whole lot of time worrying about tsunamis. The one exception is Crescent City up near the northern border which was hit by a humongous one caused by the 1964 Anchorage earthquake.

According to Wikipedia:

I’ve been there and you can see the point where the tsunami came inland because there are no older buildings.

There are tsunami evacuation signs all over the place to show people which direction to drive to higher ground.

But apparently Florida is most in danger of being hit by a monster tsunami if there is a massive earthquake in the Canary Islands. There is some massive cliff that could slide off and create a real gigantic tsunami.

I believe even Mississippi suffered damage from the Good Friday earthquake as a result of seiches (waves resulting from enclosed lakes or waterways).

I think I’ve heard about that possibility. The mega-tsunamis are even more fascinating.

I’ve lived in earthquake zones my entire life. I’ve shaken through quite a few major quakes, including the Northridge quake of 94, the Landers quake, the Sylmar quake and a host of lesser shakers. You get used to it. Common sense means you have emergency supplies on hand. We are set up for 10 days without water and a month without food. Anything more than that and the destruction would be such that there would be plenty to scavenge from those who were not so prepared.

We live at 2800’, so tsunamis don’t worry me much. :smiley: