"The problem is not so much the warning system, but how the message delivered by the system is picked up by the community."
University of Hawaii volcanology professor
A research team will try
to improve public alerts
and general awareness
University of Hawaii scientists who try to understand volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and hurricanes now want to understand how people react to disaster warnings and why.
The National Science Foundation has awarded $500,000 to a group headed by volcanology professor Bruce Houghton to develop a "tsunami preparedness model" to help emergency workers improve public alerts.
"The problem is not so much the warning system, but how the message delivered by the system is picked up by the community," said Houghton. "It's highly variable."
People in one area will follow instructions of emergency managers; those in another area will misinterpret the warning; and still others will do what they want, like going to the beach to see the waves, he said.
The United States plans to expand the tsunami detection and warning system because of the potential for tsunamis to strike most of the U.S. coastline, Houghton noted. "Without an effective warning system designed around official and natural warning mechanisms and prepared coastal communities, the high death toll experienced recently in Southeast Asia could occur in coastal communities in the U.S."
Besides Kauai, the study will include Kodiak, Alaska; Ocean Shores, Wash.; Seaside, Ore; San Diego; the Florida Keys; and Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. They were chosen based on their experience with tsunamis, coastal developments and other factors.
Chris Gregg, East Tennessee State University assistant professor of geology who completed his doctorate degree this year at UH, studied public understanding of the warning system in five Hawaii areas.
An average of only 12 percent of 956 adults and students in a survey accurately understood the meaning of the system installed after the devastating 1946 tsunami, he found.
"Our study suggests that the people of Hawaii may expect and depend on official alerts of tsunamis rather than their own detection of natural signs," Gregg said.
As a result, he said, "A threat of local tsunamis impacting Hawaii's shores within tens of minutes means people may not receive and effectively react to official warnings prior to arrival of damaging waves."
Residents must evacuate coastal areas when they see signs of a tsunami, but awareness of those signs is low to moderate.
Houghton said the new three-year study will build on one where Gregg talked to survivors and leaders in Thailand after the Dec. 26 tsunami about warning methods and educational and community development strategies.
Psychologists, sociologists, geologists and geographers will look at the underlying causes of different behavior at the seven study sites, he said. They will ask people what they believe their reaction would be in a tsunami and what their personal readiness level is.
The research team with members also from Thailand, Australia and New Zealand will try to identify the most effective methods to distribute educational information about official and natural signs of tsunamis for public alerts.
Participating with UH will be Mississippi State University, East Tennessee State, University of Tasmania and the Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences, New Zealand.
Houghton said decision-makers in emergency management often overrate people's understanding of warning signals, and "as a consequence, public preparedness for events such as a tsunami is often overrated."
For example, during the 1960 tsunami that hit Hawaii, Houghton said, only about 5 percent of those affected in Hilo reacted appropriately to the warning sirens "although most connected the siren to the idea that a tsunami was expected."
Many people envision a 250-foot Armageddon-type wave that they cannot do anything about, so they become fatalistic and do nothing, Houghton said. "Once people are fatalistic, that's what you've got to attack," he said.