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StarBulletin.com

School posters aim to raise public tsunami awareness


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POSTED: Monday, March 30, 2009

All schools statewide will begin receiving posters Wednesday on the anniversary of the devastating April 1, 1946, tsunami to address a huge problem in the tsunami emergency alert system: public awareness.

"We can have all of these bells and whistles and equipment working to give warning, but if people are not knowledgeable and don't understand the difference between tsunamis and surfing waves, then what good is it all?" said Dan Walker, retired University of Hawaii professor and tsunami adviser to the city Department of Emergency Management.

Walker created the 2-by-3-foot "Tsunamis in Hawaii" poster and laminated 1,000 of them to supply every elementary, middle and high school and school library in Hawaii.

It is an updated version of an earlier poster published in 1994, with a special section on "Tsunamis and Surfing Waves" and more information on what to do if there is a locally generated tsunami.

The Oct. 15, 2006, earthquake off the Big Island "told us we have a serious problem in education," Walker said. "A lot of people were standing around in the Kona area after they felt the shaking, and they were standing on shore. That's not good."

If the earthquake had been in a slightly different location, there could have been a tsunami that would have killed a lot of people, he said.

The new orangish-yellow poster shows the whole Pacific Ocean with all locations of large earthquakes that have produced tsunamis in Hawaii and the history and run-up (water heights on land) throughout the state for the 1946 tsunami.

A lot of costly technology has gone into a tsunami warning system, but people still want to go to the beach and surf when a tsunami alert is sounded, Walker said.

"It is especially important for surfers and beachgoers to understand the deadly differences between tsunami waves and even the largest of surfing waves," he emphasized.

With surfing waves, "you see one peak and another peak maybe 200 feet behind it," he said. "When a tsunami washes on shore, the next wave is out on the horizon, so you have an enormous volume of water washing on shore. It's like a fast-moving flood. It keeps coming and keeps coming."

A tsunami also has "incredible currents, unlike anything any surfers have seen in some of the largest waves they've been on," he said.

Kids need to learn about tsunamis and the difference from surfing waves, Walker said, suggesting teachers share the posters as a resource and explain the information to students so they can protect themselves and others "in the event of an inevitable locally generated or Pacific-wide tsunami."

"If kids learn it, they can do some teaching of parents and friends," he said. "It's a good place for education to start."