September 10, 2005

Hawaii Scientists to Study Tsunami Warning

HONOLULU (AP) -- University of Hawaii scientists want to study how local residents and authorities would respond to the state's tsunami siren warning system in the event a killer wave was approaching the islands.

The study aims to identify the best way to educate residents about official warnings and teach them about natural signs preceding a tsunami, such as earthquakes and extreme tidal changes.

Emergency management officials have "overrated" the public's level of preparedness and understanding of the killer waves, said Bruce Houghton, a volcanologist with the UH School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.

"The problem is not so much the warning system, but how the message delivered by the system is picked up by the community," he said.

"For example, during the tsunami that hit Hawaii in 1960, researchers showed that only about 5 percent of those affected by the disaster in Hilo reacted appropriately to the official sirens used to alert the people, although most connected the sirens to the idea that a tsunami was expected," Houghton said.

Hawaii has been hit by tsunamis twice in the past 100 years, including the 1946 tsunami that prompted the creation of the state's siren warning system. It runs a test on the first workday of each month.

"It's scary, really, because there is a lot of assumption that we have the most successful system around," Houghton said. "But it has been so long since it has been really tested that we don't know what the public is going to do."

For example, a recent survey of nearly 1,000 people in five communities in Hawaii showed only 12 percent understood the siren warning system, according to Chris Gregg, an associate professor of geology at East Tennessee State University. He earned doctorate degree at UH earlier this year by studying how people understand Hawaii's tsunami warning system.

Gregg's survey found people depend on the sirens instead of watching the changes that occur in the ocean as a tsunami approaches.

"This is problematic because the understanding of the official system is so low," he said.

But Hawaii's emergency planners feel the public is adequately prepared for a tsunami generated far from the islands, which gives authorities enough lead time to warn people, said Maj. Charles Anthony, spokesman for the state Department of Defense.

But Anthony acknowledged that a study could help to increase public awareness.

"It is a continuous public education campaign," he said. "Even though longtime Hawaii residents may be aware, you have new people coming in so you have to do constant reminders to be sure that everyone is getting the word in case of a tsunami."

The study, funded by a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, will involve physical scientists, psychologists and social scientists from the U.S., Thailand, Australia and New Zealand.

It will examine the preparedness of Kauai and six other U.S. communities chosen because they are at risk for locally generated and distant tsunamis: Kodiak, Alaska; Ocean Shores, Wash.; Seaside, Ore.; San Diego; the Florida Keys; and Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.


On the Net:

University of Hawaii: http://www.hawaii.edu/

National Science Foundation: http://www.nsf.gov/