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Report: At-Risk States Unprepared for Tsunami


Next on DAY TO DAY, tidal waves. A new federal report says Pacific coast states are still unprepared, despite the huge coverage of the Christmas tsunami a year and a half ago; territories in the Caribbean are also vulnerable. From Oregon Public Broadcasting, Rob Manning prepared this report.

(Soundbite of warning siren)

ROB MANNING reporting:

For millions of residents along the Pacific coast, this sound ought to mean a tsunami is coming. Tsunamis have struck North America before, including one 300 years ago that scientists say created 30-foot waves on the Pacific coast. But according to Anu Mittal, who wrote the GAO report on tsunami preparedness, there's a danger, people are going to start equating the coastal sirens with something else.

Ms. ANU MITTAL (Director, National Resources and Environment): The effectiveness of these warnings is hampered because of a number of reasons. One is that they have a lot of false alarms. And false alarms can lead to very costly and unnecessary evacuations; or people will start ignoring them in the future because they never result in a tsunami.

MANNING: The government report found that of the 16 tsunami warnings issued in the last 23 years, all turned out to be false alarms. That includes a warning issued last June, which led to evacuations up and down the Pacific coast. That false alarm highlighted other holes in the tsunami warning system, which have appeared again in this week's GAO report.

For one, 911 phone lines were jammed all along the west coast with people wanting to know where to go. Tom Manning is the emergency manager for one county on Oregon's central coast. He agrees with the report's emphasis on education.

Mr. TOM MANNING (Emergency Manager, Tillamook County, Oregon): It should be a situation where children are taught at a young and early age and understand the risk. And I think this should happen nationwide, because if you visit - if you're visiting from Nebraska and, you know, you don't know what the signs of a tsunami are, especially a distant tsunami, it could be very dangerous.

MANNING: But even if you know enough to head to high ground, getting there can be hard without a good map. Oregon has mapped only nine of the 17 major cities on the coast and none of the sparsely inhabited areas between cities. Alaska is even farther behind, with maps of only five towns. And many local highways don't have the capacity to take on a crush of traffic. That's a big concern of Washington Governor Chris Gregoire.

Governor CHRISTINE GREGOIRE (Democrat, Washington): It's one thing to warn people a tsunami's coming. It's another thing to have them have the capacity to evacuate in a timely way.

MANNING: A west coast tsunami could be accompanied by a major earthquake, which officials fear would knock out bridges and roads to coastal communities, making it even harder to move out of the way of a giant wave. Oregon State Tsunami Coordinator Jay Wilson says the aftermath of a tsunami and earthquake on the Pacific coast may end up looking more like the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina with its millions of homeless.

Mr. JAY WILSON (Earthquake and Tsunami Programs Coordinator, Oregon): There's high portions of those communities that aren't going to have a home to come back to, and they're therefore going to have to be sheltered. And so I think that county, those communities, for example, really need to assess the adequacy of their mass care and sheltering emergency capabilities.

MANNING: The GAO report did push for a stronger role from FEMA, as well as better coordination with local and state authorities, so that at-risk areas from Puerto Rico to Alaska can be better prepared for a tsunami before the warning sirens go off. For NPR News, I'm Rob Manning in Portland, Oregon.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Manning has been both a reporter and an on-air host at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before that, he filled both roles with local community station KBOO and nationally with Free Speech Radio News. He's also published freelance print stories with Portland's alternative weekly newspaper Willamette Week and Planning Magazine. In 2007, Rob received two awards for investigative reporting from the Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists, and he was part of the award-winning team responsible for OPB's "Hunger Series." His current beats range from education to the environment, sports to land-use planning, politics to housing.
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