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Tsunami test run

May 18, 2006 By Emma Marris This article courtesy of Nature News.

A mock tsunami this week let Pacific countries put their emergency warning systems to the test. Emma Marris talks to Brian Yanagi, who helped to develop and monitor the test, to find out how it went.

What was this exercise meant to test?

The purpose of Exercise Pacific Wave '06 was to evaluate the ability of Pacific countries to respond to an ocean-wide tsunami.

What was your role?

I'm with the International Tsunami Information Center. We coordinate the international community's activities when it comes to tsunami warning and mitigation. I was involved with the planning of the exercise, and yesterday I was at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in Ewa Beach, Hawaii.

How did it work?

There were more than 30 countries and three warning centres involved: the PTWC, the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palma, and also the Japan Meteorological Agency, Tokyo. We had to envision two scenario earthquakes, because of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean; when the eastern Pacific is in daylight, the western Pacific is asleep, and we wanted countries to conduct the exercise during normal daytime working hours.

The first was a magnitude-9.2 earthquake near the coast of Chile. Scenario two was an earthquake of magnitude 8.8 north of the Philippines. Every country took the exercise to varying stages of operations. A few countries did limited public evacuations, including Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and American Samoa. All of them conducted some sort of communications testing.

But a real tsunami isn't necessarily going to strike during the day.

True. Because this is an unprecedented exercise, we wanted it to be done in a controlled environment where people can clearly flesh out their strengths and weaknesses. But the infrastructure for communications is in place 24/7.

So, how did it go? What was it like at the Hawaiian centre?

Everybody was looking at computers, at [simulated] seismic instrument data streams and sea-level data coming in from coastal tide gauges. They used this to prepare the bulletins, and then there were phone calls being made to the participants to say 'Hey, hello, did you get our bulletins?' The mood in the room was very intense, very deliberate. It was relatively quiet because everyone knew what their responsibilities were.

From the warning centres' perspective, the exercise was a success: we were able to disseminate all the bulletins. In general it was well received by the countries. I have only seen one feedback so far, from the Thailand National Disaster Warning Center in Bangkok. They say they received all the tsunami warning centre bulletins in a timely manner. [News reports have since stated that an overloaded phone system in Thailand delayed attempts to send text messages from that centre out to the public.]

Were you worried about this exercise being taken for the real thing and scaring people?

In preparation for the exercise, a manual of more than 100 pages was prepared and handed out to the participants. The actual scripted bulletins were in that manual. When these bulletins were transmitted, they said "this is an exercise, turn to scenario one." It was clearly marked so that there wouldn't be any cause for alarm.

But if everyone knew the exact details of the scenario in advance from the manual, how was that a challenge?

Some of these countries have never participated in a tsunami exercise. So it was important that this be a controlled environment so people know what to expect and how the exercise will unfold; just going through this process was all new. It wasn't intended to try to surprise them, or trip them up.

Believe me, there is no need to introduce surprise exercises. There are already real world events that surprise us.

Like the Tonga earthquake of 3 May? That was a real event that triggered a warning from your centre, although a tsunami never hit shore. But a communication glitch kept your bulletin from reaching Tonga itself. Doesn't that tell us more than this exercise about how prepared everyone really is?

They are both really useful. That earthquake knocked power out on a lot of the islands, and the centre that receives the tsunami bulletins was knocked offline. Hopefully this should be a lesson that if you live near an earthquake zone, you need some very solid back-up power capacity. You can simulate that. The scenario was there for countries to play with.

Does the thought of a tsunami hitting Hawaii worry you?

I purposely live inland of the coastline on Oahu. Hawaii is a model example of a community that has been preparing for tsunamis for a long time: we have in the phone books tsunami evacuation maps of the coastline which clearly designate areas that have to be evacuated. But I made sure I didn't buy along the coastline. I sleep well at night.

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